Elon Musk – a masterclass in wrong-footing a reporter

It wasn’t far into the interview when it became unclear who the interviewer and interviewee were
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By Casey Chua
Director of Crisis Response, Asia

Billionaire business magnate Elon Musk agreed to a hastily arranged live interview with the BBC at Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco in April 2023.

BBC’s technology correspondent James Clayton grilled the tech entrepreneur on various topics including his management of Twitter, the social networking platform he acquired for USD44 billion in October 2022, and his views on free speech and misinformation.

Musk delivered a masterclass performance on how to handle interviews where ill-prepared reporters pursue damaging narratives and agendas without providing supporting evidence.

It wasn’t far into the interview when it became unclear whom the interviewer and interviewee were. In fact, Musk turned the tables on Clayton and took control of the interview.

When asked if he prioritises freedom of speech over misinformation and hate speech, Musk did not respond to the false dichotomy. Instead, he asked Clayton who is the arbiter of information or misinformation and whether BBC is the arbiter. Clayton eventually acquiesced by saying “I’m quite sure the BBC have said things before that turned out not to be true in its hundred-year history”.

Musk noticed Clayton used vague terms in his line of questioning and appeared unable to substantiate his arguments. When Clayton highlighted the rise in hateful content that appeared on his personalised Twitter feed, Musk challenged Clayton to define what hate speech is and to give a specific example of hateful content.

Musk: “Content you don’t like or hateful content? Describe what you mean by hateful.”

Clayton responded by defining hateful content as “content that will solicit a reaction …something that is slightly racist, slightly sexist, those kinds of things”.

Musk used the slippery slope argument and cornered Clayton: “So you think if something is slightly sexist, it should be banned?”

Clayton was clearly unprepared for Musk’s counter-offensive. Clayton was not only unable to provide a specific example of hateful content, but he also contradicted himself. Clayton began by saying that he is seeing more hateful content on his personalised Twitter feed, but he contradicts himself moments later by saying he doesn’t use that feed anymore.

Musk pounced on the contradiction.

Musk: “Hang on a second. You have said you see more hateful content, but you can’t name a single example, not even one?”

Clayton: “I’m not sure I’ve used that feed for the last three or four weeks.”

Musk: “Then how have you seen that hateful content?”

Clayton: “Because I’ve been using Twitter since you’ve taken it over for the last six months.”

Musk: “So then you must have at some point seen the ‘For You’ hateful content, and I’m asking you for one example, and you can’t give a single one? Then I say sir, you don’t know what you are talking about!”

Musk eventually delivers the coup de grâce and calls out Clayton for lying: “… you can’t give me a single example of hateful content, not even one Tweet, and yet you claimed that the hateful content was high. That’s a false. You just lied!”

What are the main takeaways for our industry? Should maritime leaders emulate Musk’s combative approach to interviews if they are battling a crisis?

As the world’s second richest man with a larger-than-life persona, Musk’s clout and charisma grant him the licence to operate the way he does with the media. Everyone else should probably stick to the fundamentals: take interviews seriously and prepare well for them.


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