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All the Elon Musk controversies we've seen this year

X (formerly Twitter) CEO Elon Musk laughs during an in-conversation event with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in London on November 2, 2023, following the UK Artificial
X (formerly Twitter) CEO Elon Musk laughs during an in-conversation event with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in London on November 2, 2023, following the UK Artificial Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Indrabati Lahiri
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From disinformation to rows with Ukraine, Euronews Business looks at all the controversies that billionaire Elon Musk has been caught up in this year.

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Elon Musk has found himself in more than his fair share of controversies, ever since the takeover of social media platform Twitter, now dubbed X. The acquisition was completed in the tail end of 2022.

Since then, Musk has been heavily criticised for reinstating accounts which have long been considered problematic by users, such as former US President Donald Trump's, in the name of free speech. 

Trump had previously been banned by Twitter due to his incitement of the 6 January US Capitol attack and the risk of further such attacks.

Rapper and record producer Kanye West's account was also reinstated on X in July 2023, even after a slew of antisemitic jokes and overt praise for Hitler. This has already led to several of his sponsors letting him go.

Most recently, the rapper also went on an antisemitic rant at a hotel in Las Vegas on 15 December. This is despite his legal advisors warning him that continuing to do so may further jeopardise his visitation rights with his children with ex-wife Kim Kardashian.

Back in December 2022, following the takeover, Musk launched a poll on X, asking whether he should step down as the CEO of Twitter, promising that he would honour whatever the vote results said.

However, when the vote veered 57.5% in favour of him stepping down, Musk tried to play off the whole thing as a joke, by saying that he had indeed, stepped down, and appointed his dog as CEO.

At the time, Musk had vowed: "I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job." However, it took several more months and a number of pointed reminders for him to finally appoint Linda Yaccarino as CEO, with Musk then becoming the company's chief technology officer.

To speak freely or not to speak freely?

Also in December 2022, Musk started banning several prominent journalists such as The New York Times technology reporter Ryan Mac and CNN reporter Donie O'Sullivan. Musk justified this by saying that these reporters violated Twitter's rules on sharing publicly identifiable information.

The move was heavily criticised as being ironic and going against the very free speech that Musk claimed to promote and defend earlier. The ban also put Musk at risk of a number of EU sanctions, due to his violation of the bloc's Digital Services Act (DSA), outlining fundamental rights and media freedom.

If sanctions come into motion, X could very well have to see a fine of up to 6% of global yearly earnings. Amongst other requirements, the DSA also mandates that online platforms of a certain size take appropriate steps to maintain user rights and protection, reduce misinformation, as well as share transparency reports.

Musk stops Ukraine's surprise attack on Russian ships

In September 2023, Elon Musk was severely criticised by Ukraine for preventing its military from gaining access to his Starlink satellite network, which had visibility of the Crimean coast. This in turn put an end to Ukraine's plans of a secret attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Musk defended his decision by emphasising that he refused to let SpaceX be "explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation". However, Ukraine still maintained that this stance meant that Musk was indirectly supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin and contributing to the loss of civilian lives.

SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk cheers as he speaks at the annual political festival Atreju, organised by the Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.
SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk cheers as he speaks at the annual political festival Atreju, organised by the Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.Alessandra Tarantino/AP

It was later revealed that Musk was warned by the Russian ambassador to the US that if Ukraine happened to attack that particular port, it could very well result in nuclear war, potentially swaying Musk's decision. However, this ultimately turned out to be a bluff, as Ukraine later carried out a series of naval attacks, including on Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Following the row, Musk has been seemingly reluctantly involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. He even came up with his own peace proposal, which essentially suggested that Ukraine let go of Crimea completely and accept that it is part of Russia's territory.

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This sparked intense backlash from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Oleksii Makeiev. Recently, Musk has started dropping hints that it may be too expensive to continue Starlink in Ukraine, and that SpaceX may have to divest portions of the satellite network. Since then, plans have been put into motion to allow the US military to lease out parts of Starlink.

EU launches disinformation investigations against X

However, Musk's war controversies did not end there. After the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Musk once again faced the heat for failing to do enough to prevent disinformation and the spread of extremist accounts on X. Not only that, but he himself backed up a few accounts which were known for spreading fake, artificial intelligence (AI)-generated images of the conflict.

This led to the EU finally revealing that it suspects X of breaking its disinformation and illegal content rules, leading to the launch of a probe into the social media platform.

Although X has banned hundreds of Hamas-linked accounts from the platform since then, it could potentially be a case of too little, too late, as the investigation is already underway.

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Conspiracy theories seem to be another sticky point with the billionaire. At the end of November this year, Musk voiced his belief in a conspiracy theory implicating prominent Democrats involved in a paedophile ring, run from a pizza joint in Washington.

Dubbed Pizzagate, Musk shared memes with modified dialogues about the debunked theory, contributing to the misinformation on X.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, talks to Elon Musk, holding one of his sons, during their meeting in New York, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, talks to Elon Musk, holding one of his sons, during their meeting in New York, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023.Turkish Presidency/AP

Most recently, Musk's alleged anti-semitism reared its head again, with the entrepreneur supporting a post about "The Great Replacement". This theory suggests that Jewish and other non-white immigrants are instigating hate against white communities, which may eventually lead to a white genocide.

Perhaps one of his most contradictory stances this year has been about AI. Musk has openly warned the world against the dangers of AI, claiming that we may have machines smarter than humans sooner than we realise.

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However, this has not stopped him from continuing to pursue bigger and better AI achievements himself, even announcing the launch of a rival chatbot application, Grok, to rival the immensely popular ChatGPT. He has also criticised the latter for being politically correct, while openly declaring Grok to be more rebellious, with a constant curiosity about the universe.

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