Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

For the past six weeks, Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg and CEO of Tesla and X (formerly Twitter) Elon Musk have traded barbs about a proposed MMA-style fight the billionaires are seeking to hold at some point this year.MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

David Silverberg is a Toronto journalist and editor who has reported on digital culture and Silicon Valley for the past 17 years.

In the red corner, coming in at six-foot-one and weighing 187 pounds, and hailing from South Africa with a staggering net worth of US$225-billion, he’s best known as the egotistical and trolling billionaire who was forced by a court to follow through on his purchase of Twitter and is now running the social platform into the ground with each baffling decision … Elon Musk!

And in the blue corner, weighing 154 pounds and standing at five-foot-seven, and boasting a net worth of US$107-billion, he’s the baby-faced six-packed social media genius whose company consistently gets fined for data and behavioural ad violations, coming to us from White Plains, N.Y., with not one but two Congressional hearings under his belt …. Mark Zuckerberg!

You won’t hear such honest introductions fronting the fight between the Meta CEO and the owner of X, formerly Twitter – if it ever even happens. But that kind of truth-telling would be an appropriate smackdown of what this fight is accomplishing: distracting us from the blunders, missteps and downright ugliness afflicting these two highly influential companies, just in the past year alone.

For the past six weeks, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Musk have traded online barbs about a proposed MMA-style fight the billionaires are seeking to hold at some point this year. They’ve argued about the location, ranging from the Colosseum in Rome to an octagon-sized ring in Mr. Zuckerberg’s backyard. They’ve argued about if the fight is actually on; after Mr. Musk claimed he might need shoulder surgery, Mr. Zuckerberg responded theatrically on Threads: “If Elon ever gets serious about a real date and official event, he knows how to reach me.” And each development has gobbled up attention spans and headline space.

But this is all bread-and-circuses, and it overshadows several instances of terrible decisions and steep punishments that Meta and X have both faced recently.

Earlier this month, for instance, Norway’s data protection authority announced it would fine Meta 1 million crowns ($61,000) per day, claiming that the company doesn’t share with users how much of their data are being tracked and ingested by its behavioural ad technology. Meanwhile, Ireland’s own data privacy authority continues to hit Meta with fines – most recently, a record-setting €1.2-billion ($1.77-billion) in May – for failing to protect users’ phone numbers and other data, in persistent defiance of a 2020 European court ruling.

Meta also joined Google in banning news stories for Canadian users last month. That botched rollout led to non-Canadian media outlets and even individuals getting caught up in the restrictions. And the timing couldn’t have been worse; residents in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories say that they’ve been unable to share or read the latest updates on the wildfires raging in their communities.

Mr. Musk, meanwhile, has pushed a subscription tier that has led many to flee Twitter, reinstated the accounts of people who had rightfully been booted off the platform for posting racist and antisemitic content, and proposed removing anti-harassment tools such as the block function. Earlier this month, seven former Twitter employees launched a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination, age discrimination, and violations of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. And just this week, The New Yorker reported on how the U.S. government has had to navigate Mr. Musk’s meddling in international affairs.

Sure, it might be entertaining to watch the culmination of a personal rivalry between billionaires. We might get a kick out of seeing public figures swinging their untrained fists at each other’s faces. We might even welcome some entertainment amid the union strikes in Hollywood.

But what the two tech titans are proposing feels like untethered machismo and immature bravado – and we should be sick of tolerating it. Yet even as X and Meta continue to face blow after blow from employees, governments and a close call from the U.S. Congress, their leaders’ mental energy is being devoted to a fight that will do what, exactly? Prove that one billionaire ignored their responsibilities more, so they could train harder than the other? Give both platforms a mind-bending surge of global viewers if the fight streams in real-time?

The loser in this fight is us. Another distraction pulling influential tech leaders away from their product is another foot-dragging week or month where the platforms we use – rely on, really – degrade even further.

If and when the bell rings on this silly fight, I won’t be watching. I’ll turn off my computer and pour myself a glass of wine and celebrate the end of a debacle.

That is, until the inevitable and depressing rematch.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe