Public crucifixion in the social media age

Natasha Moore weighs the apparent trainwreck of Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter - and why we enjoy watching the rich and powerful fail.

There are words to describe what seems to be happening over at Twitter these days.

The British term “omnishambles” comes to mind. Internet commentator Ryan Broderick goes with “one giant slow-motion fail whale”. “Excruciating” would work too – from crux, cross, crucifixion – the most fearsome instrument of torture devised by the Roman Empire.

The public spectacle of failure in the social media age does in certain ways resemble a crucifixion of old – not least because the crowd enjoys it so much.

Hence Liz Truss being pitted against a lettuce (in this economy!) and emerging as the UK’s shortest-serving Prime Minister after just 45 days; or Elon Musk becoming the notorious Main Character of Twitter the last month or two, perhaps the most piled-on person on the internet right now.

The apparent trainwreck of Musk’s take-over of Twitter began when he initially bid for the company back in April, had his bid accepted, then changed his mind and tried to get out of buying it. The company sued Musk to force him to follow through, and in October he changed course again and completed the deal.

The chaos accelerated from 26 October, when he tweeted a photo of himself literally carrying a kitchen sink, accompanied by the caption “Entering Twitter HQ – let that sink in!”

Over the last few weeks he has fired more than half the company’s staff (… but then asked some engineers to return), in the process potentially violating labour laws in multiple countries. (“It is as if Thanos had decided to try his hand at business”, mused The Economist.)

He scrapped Twitter’s work from home policy and demanded a formal commitment from employees that they be “hardcore” about work hours or else take severance (… but then closed the office for four days after an unexpectedly high percentage of the remaining staff resigned).

There has been disarray, too, over strategy – undercooked announcements and frequent backtracks about subscription plans and moderation policies; a public poll about whether to reinstate Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Management-by-tweet, and a reported exodus of advertisers.

Musk’s net worth has dropped by $100 billion as the Tesla share price responds to the volatility at Twitter, among other things. (He remains the richest person in the world by some margin.) Twitter users have been heralding the imminent collapse of the platform and using their supposed last gasps to weigh the merits of alternatives like Mastodon.

Musk even had to clarify back in 2018: “I don’t think I’m Jesus.”

It’s hard to look away from a trainwreck. There is a ghoulish delight in watching rich and/or powerful people fail epically in real time. Perhaps all the more so because failure is so rarely admitted; the playbook involves brazening it out – show no weakness! – until either the crisis blows over (fake it till you make it) or the collapse becomes total, undeniable. Every politician insists in the strongest terms that they have absolutely no intention of resigning, right up to the moment they step out onto Downing Street (for example) to announce their resignation.

Defenders of Musk (or Truss) may argue that chaos is a necessary part of big, bold change; and that the grim glee of the mesmerised spectators is a mere case of tall poppy syndrome. So much of success or failure is in the eye of the beholder – rebrand implosion as revolution, apparent incompetence as misunderstood genius, and you can at least win the blame game, if nothing else.

Most of us can be pretty glad of the relative obscurity in which we make our own mistakes and miscalculations, even as we lap up the public spectacle of others’ failures. Of course, with greater power comes greater responsibility – and accountability. The knock-on effects of your choices if you’re the world’s richest man affect an awful lot of people.

In fact, the grandiosity of Musk’s ambitions feeds into both the resentment against him and the reverence of his supporters. He has avowed messianic plans to save humanity – through energy transition (Tesla), interplanetary travel (SpaceX), and now free speech (Twitter). He even had to clarify back in 2018 (responding to a reporter’s question): “I don’t think I’m Jesus.” A 2019 YA biography is titled Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World.

The logic of failure and success, weakness and glory, looks very different in the respective public “crucifixions” of Christ (literal) and of “Chief Twit” Musk (digital). The cross of Jesus could be called the greatest rebranding exercise in history: a moment of utter failure and humiliation becomes the very means by which this Messiah saves the world. He plays the blame game the opposite way – shouldering the failings of others rather than looking to shift his own.

Perhaps our mercilessness towards the public failures of our leaders reflects something of the bitterness of feeling let down by yet another self-appointed Messiah. The spectacle of Musk-era Twitter should tell us something about what we look for in a saviour – and what we expect from a fellow, failing human.