Elon Musk isn’t like other tech billionaires, even if he owns a major social media company now. First, he’s much richer. Second, he has a fervent, extremely online fan base — a kind usually reserved for boy bands — and this fandom has helped propel the incredible success of his companies on Wall Street.
Salina Gomez, a 43-year-old illustrator in Colorado, has been a devoted Musk fan for the past five years. She says the billionaire tech entrepreneur’s ambition to colonize Mars helped her find her calling: to help humanity expand into space. But in the past year, as Musk became more vocal about his support of right-wing politics, she’s lost some faith in a man she once idolized.
“It gets harder to see him as somebody that I can look up to,” she told Recode in June. Though Gomez doesn’t have a political party affiliation, she was especially troubled when Musk announced his plans to vote Republican, even as Republicans are dismantling abortion rights in several US states. “He knows damn well what he’s doing when he says that on Twitter. He’s encouraging people to move in that direction,” Gomez said.
Gomez is one of a dozen Elon Musk fans who told Recode this summer that they’ve become disillusioned with the polarizing CEO of Tesla and SpaceX. They gave a variety of reasons, but one throughline is that the reality of Musk has failed to live up to the larger-than-life image he has long presented — the same myth that drew them into Musk’s orbit in the first place.
Professor Iwan Morus, a science historian who has written about the valorization of “tech disruptors” like Musk, says there’s a powerful appeal to “the notion of the inventor, the person who makes the future, as somebody who’s an iconoclast — who’s different, who’s disruptive.” Musk and his quest to disrupt the auto industry to save the planet have helped establish him as this kind of figure in the public imagination.
But lately, Musk’s political takes, as well as his messy bid to acquire Twitter that finally closed after months of him trying to back out of it, have drawn even more public scrutiny to him than usual. According to a poll from the survey research firm Morning Consult, unfavorable impressions of Musk rose among both Democratic and Republican voters between April and June, going up by 22 percentage points in this period for Democrats and 8 percentage points for Republicans. While Musk still has legions of fans — and has even seemed to attract new supporters who admire his embrace of certain conservative talking points — the reasons some of his admirers have soured on him showcase how Musk’s popular online presence, which has helped him become the richest person on Earth, has become detrimental to his image.
This shift of opinion might seem sudden, but for many of the former fans Recode spoke to, the journey of disappointment was years in the making. They pointed to several issues, many of which have played out on Twitter — such as Musk opposing Covid-19 restrictions, allegations of racism and worker mistreatment at Tesla and SpaceX, and the often incendiary manner in which Musk responds to detractors, to name just a few. To some, it seems that Musk has changed from the person they once admired. To others, the shift was proof that it was a mistake to worship a billionaire CEO as a hero in the first place.
From hero to zero
Patrick Levy, a 41-year-old carpenter in California, became a Musk fan in Tesla’s early days. “The idea of not burning gas was a pretty cool one,” he said. He was impressed by how the company was making electric vehicles sexy, and grew intrigued by other concepts Musk proposed, like the futuristic Hyperloop, “given that he made good on the cars, or at least the first few cars.”
“The idea of this kind of romantic futurism started seeming viable” because of Musk, Levy said.
Now, he says, he wants nothing to do with the billionaire or his companies. He used to hold Tesla stock, but he sold all of it in 2020.
For Levy, the sheen of Musk’s image wore off the more he commented publicly — and often crassly — on matters beyond his businesses. “The pedo thing, I think, was the first big red flag,” he said, referring to a now-famous incident from 2018 connected to the rescue of a youth soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand. A cave diver in the rescue effort criticized Musk’s attempt to assist, and Musk tweeted to his millions of followers that the diver was a “pedo.”
Levy became increasingly bothered by Musk’s behavior. It didn’t seem worthy of someone in his position. “The idea of getting all the carbon-burning cars off the road is a really important mission — and he’s not acting like it is,” he said.
He grew more cynical about Musk’s ideas and promises as well. Tesla seemed more interested in making “spec-busting vehicles” than something practical and, crucially, more affordable. “He wants to make all these ridiculous toys for rich people,” Levy said. “He’s just not making cars for me.”
Still, he acknowledged the appeal of the narrative Musk wove. “If somebody is telling you that they have solutions to these really big, existential problems, I think a lot of people are inclined to listen to that,” he said. “I just don’t think that he’s delivering on it.”
The belief that Musk hasn’t delivered on his vision is another catalyst for his former admirers to lose their admiration. Filip Piekniewski, a 41-year-old scientist and engineer in California, began to see Musk differently the more he dug into the billionaire’s often grandiose claims and promises.
In a 2018 blog post discussing the viability of some of Musk’s ideas — like flying from Shanghai to New York in just 39 minutes — Piekniewski wrote that he once thought the tech CEO might be the next Steve Jobs, “only actually better.” But that was before Musk began talking about AI, which he claims is a great existential threat to humanity. Piekniewski, who has a PhD in computer science and who worked on a DARPA-funded AI research project, doesn’t agree, saying that Musk and Silicon Valley have “overexaggerated the so-called deep learning revolution.”
Musk can sound like an expert when he’s discussing a topic you don’t know much about — but the moment he enters your area of expertise, said Piekniewski, “then you realize that he doesn’t necessarily know what he’s talking about.”
But, like Levy, Piekniewski acknowledges the draw of Musk’s big ideas, and his talent for PR. “I think Elon understands very well the biggest application of rocketry is not actually space exploration — it is propaganda,” he told Recode. “A rocket launch is such a show, right?”
Skepticism about whether Musk has actually fulfilled his bold promises is sacrilege among loyalists, who are known for harassing his critics. Take last year, when they targeted Missy Cummings, an engineering professor and a critic of Tesla’s driver assistance technology, after she was appointed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a safety adviser. Musk’s fans sent her a barrage of online harassment — including death threats — and Cummings deactivated her Twitter account.
Several of the former fans interviewed by Recode spoke on condition of anonymity, citing worries about backlash from his admirers. This concern is indicative of the strain of tribalism running through Musk’s fandom. To a degree, that may be a feature of any insular community — but it’s remarkable that a fandom exists at all for a tech CEO. There is no comparable adoration for Jeff Bezos, who also believes humanity should go to Mars, or even for the late Steve Jobs. Former fans said that Musk’s aggressive followers contributed to their growing distaste for the billionaire.
Among these former fans, there’s an overarching sense that they would respect Musk more if he said less. Most give credit to Musk for his contributions to the EV and space industries — the problem they see is his tendency to stride into other conversations as if he’s an informed authority, whether it’s opining on how many Covid cases there would be by April 2020 or how to run a social media platform.
“His overall arrogance has kind of skyrocketed in the last few years,” said Van Cummerford, a 27-year-old former fan in Arizona.
Though Cummerford still sees Musk as someone trying to do good in the world, he’s grown more and more disturbed by the inequality billionaires represent. “In the last few years, he’s gotten so much richer, especially with the pandemic,” he said. The number of billionaires increased by 30 percent from 2020 to 2021, and Musk’s own wealth has seen a meteoric rise during the pandemic. In January 2020, he was worth around $28 billion — in November 2021, his net worth reached a peak of $338 billion.
Cummerford points to the allegations of employee mistreatment at Tesla and SpaceX in recent years as one reason he doesn’t look up to Musk the way he used to. Musk “doesn’t treat his workers fairly, just like other billionaires don’t,” he said. Another reason is the billionaire’s habit of tweeting about specific stocks, which Cummerford sees as a case of price manipulation.
As a finance expert running her own financial literacy company, 36-year-old Bridget Casey also took issue with Musk’s tweets on Tesla and Dogecoin stocks. “His audience on Twitter is so large,” she told Recode. “He really does have the power to manipulate stock prices with a single tweet.” Once upon a time, she had thought of him as a great innovator.
“But as time wore on, his antics started to get really ridiculous, particularly on Twitter,” she said. “Now we know things about him that I would have preferred not to know.”
Another former fan, a 19-year-old in India, said that Musk represented the best and worst parts of capitalism. “I so badly wanted to believe he was the guy who would change the course of humanity and would take us, as a civilization, to new heights,” he told Recode over email. As time went on, he saw that Musk didn’t always deliver — such as his promise in March 2020 that Tesla would start making ventilators for hospitals in case of a shortage — and that his ideas weren’t always brilliant. “He’s just an expert at media and knows how people’s psychology works,” he said.
The danger of hero worship
Image matters for all public figures, but perhaps no other billionaire has been as adept at using the internet to shape their public image, and then leveraging that to improve the financial performance of their businesses. In some ways, image has been Musk’s greatest asset. His stature as a high-minded iconoclast who will stop at nothing to help humanity thrive in the far-flung future is one of the keys to the success of his businesses.
“Humanity is life’s steward, as no other species can transport life to Mars,” he tweeted in June 2022. “We can’t let them down.”
This is Musk’s typical style of not just selling products, or even piecemeal ideas, but a philosophy of life. He uses rousing, hyperbolic language that speaks of humanity in broad sweeps. It’s little surprise then that so many consider him a visionary — or did once upon a time. “Particularly for me there was a hole that was never filled after Carl Sagan’s death,” said one former fan from Reddit, where there’s a sizable community of Musk devotees.
Salina Gomez, the artist passionate about getting humanity to Mars, is now getting a master’s degree in religious studies at the University of Denver, focusing her research on the intersection of religion and space colonization. It’s always been clear to her that space expansion is a “religious impulse,” connected to the search for meaning. And she believes Musk understands that impulse, too.
Studying religion has been instructive in deconstructing her own relationship with the billionaire. “I feel like I have a little bit more of a buffer between his spiritual leadership. It really was that for me for a long time,” she said. “Now I’m looking at it more critically.”
Some of Musk’s disillusioned fans also say they began to scrutinize more closely how the billionaire woos cultural relevance in a way that few other businesspeople do. Twitter, where Musk has over 110 million followers at time of writing, is his primary marketing channel. And last year — the same year he overtook Bezos as the richest man in the world — Musk even hosted Saturday Night Live, despite the disapproval of some cast members and viewers.
Part of Musk’s allure is also that he appears not to care much about his image, even if he in fact cares a lot about his image. He’s often described as a shitposter, and straddles a sense of casual insincerity. People seem endlessly fascinated that a billionaire posts memes and can kick it with the rest of the unserious internet — and this ostensible “authenticity,” compared to other CEOs who communicate only in canned PR speak, has cemented his popularity.
And yet, as former fans expressed to Recode, Musk’s stream of tweets has begun increasingly turning people off. If his control over his image slips — if it becomes more of a liability than an asset — he stands to lose money and power. A decade ago, media attention on Musk tended to be more fawning. But as more and more reporting scrutinizes him and his companies, and as a larger public discourse questions billionaires and the role they play in wealth inequality, Musk has doubled down on the narrative that attacks against him are politically motivated and engineered in bad faith by those who jealously want to see his noble mission fail.
In the end, Musk is just one example of how powerful people, particularly billionaires, have learned to craft a public image that expands their influence. Particularly in an age when so much information — and misinformation — is readily available, billionaires like Musk aren’t only using the values of their business ventures and their political and philanthropic donations to impart influence. They’re also using their personal brand and social media savvy to become arbiters of a certain truth, purporting to separate the signal from all the noise.
And that’s what’s worth paying attention to — that Musk isn’t alone in leveraging his massive influence, which extends beyond his actual wealth, to shape the present and the future. The tech industry has transformed our way of life, and tech leaders assure us that they are singularly equipped to deliver even more magical innovation.
“People are looking to individuals — whether the individuals are on the left or the right — as their saviors,” said Morus. Much of the past several decades have been characterized by the adoption of neoliberal policies favoring reduced government budgets and public spending, a worldview most championed by conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. And it has contributed to a loss of faith in institutions, says Morus, while at the same time prompting an “increased focus on charismatic individuals.”
Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a vocal critic of wealth inequality, notes that there’s a great cultural cachet to “virtuous or innovative capital” and “the idea that you’ve invented something that everybody will benefit from.”
“It plays into our great man theory of history,” he said. “We don’t recognize the value of public investments, or workers, or other people within an enterprise — we just focus on the person at the head of the enterprise.”
Whether Musk’s current public image turbulence is a blip or not is hard to say. Some former fans said they believed more of his supporters will eventually realize he isn’t deserving of their fandom. Others were pessimistic that such a powerful person could ever truly be dethroned.
Whatever happens next, Musk’s former fans are reckoning with the downsides of putting too much stock in billionaires who use the public’s admiration to influence which problems we ought to prioritize and how our resources should be allocated.
In the past, Musk has described his political alignment as “utopian anarchist,” describing a society where “you’re not under anyone’s thumb.” And on this, he’s completely right. No one person can be humanity’s great hope. To believe that not only leads to disappointment — it gives too much power to a single individual’s imperfect vision of what our future should look like.