Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
When the rest of us pop out for a spot of shopping, it’s usually for price-inflated groceries. Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, treated himself to the social-media platform Twitter.
He plans to champion free expression, maybe. Allow back Donald Trump, possibly, depending what the new content-moderation team decides. And, definitely, to do some corporate restructuring.
The Tesla chief executive – a Canadian, among other nationalities – received a hero’s welcome from those who’d found Twitter too censorious, and wariness from those wondering whether free speech is, in this case, a euphemism for giving neo-Nazi trolls even more ground. Some threatened to leave Twitter; others announced that they were staying, but not happy about it.
Mr. Musk is one of several public figures – see also Jordan Peterson, Kanye West, and Mr. Trump – who fit a certain role in the culture: megalomaniac, or more generously, large-personality-haver, brazenly indifferent to political correctness, or even just politeness. They are the cartoonishly masculine “Chads” from the trolling virgin-Chad meme – men who, in various ways, live out the fantasy of getting to do and say whatever they please. It’s not everyone’s fantasy, but it’s shared widely enough that it can make for a lucrative personal brand.
Mr. Musk in particular – with his godlike wealth, his procreative prolificacy and his flirtation with space travel – seems to inspire another whole level of men-want-to-be-him. But you don’t have to be a Musketeer to be put off by the self-righteous pile-ons that some progressive corners of Twitter regularly dish out. The site needs shaking up, that much I’ll grant.
But whatever the ultimate impact of Mr. Musk’s purchase on Twitter itself, its reception has already been like a social-media version of what happened when Mr. Trump won the presidency, and when the sort of people enthusiastic about that result felt, as the euphemism goes, emboldened.
A photo began circulating of Mr. Musk meeting with Twitter employees, around the time he fired a bunch of them. While a careful reading of the timeline suggests these were not the executives he fired, the photo quickly became a meme among Mr. Musk’s admirers, many of whom leapt to the conclusion that these were the newly sacked. The photo became a prompt for expressing glee that Mr. Musk was getting rid of the woke beneficiaries of cushy tech jobs.
Most of the rage has been directed at one person in Mr. Musk’s audience: an unidentified woman whose face is in partial view. Jason Howerton, a Twitter user with a large following, decided, for reasons known only to himself, to tweet out two photos where this woman is circled in red, the second more zoomed in on her than the first. “[That feeling when] you, like, can’t believe this is happening to you,” he added, in mockery of this woman whose job is supposedly on the line.
Many in the thread decided that the woman is Vijaya Gadde, who was partly behind Mr. Trump’s Twitter ban, and is among the executives Mr. Musk just fired. Another massively viral post does the same, despite these looking like two different people, albeit perhaps of the same ethnicity. (This is relevant to our story.) The Daily Mail also identifies her as Ms. Gadde, but seemingly using Twitter as its source. For the pro-Musk, pro-Trump contingent, it all has real burn-the-witch energy.
Others confused her for a Twitter employee once mocked by the right-wing account Libs of TikTok for benefiting from a cushy tech job – a lesser crime.
Most, though, have been content to extrapolate from the woman’s (utterly unremarkable) expression. It is, per one tweeter, “the look of a person who has never been told ‘no’ in her life.” Another: “This is the face you make when someone expects you to actually start working.” And others still said the quiet part out loud: “Always the ones that came to the states for a better life, only to complain about how terrible a country it is.”
The wildest subthread came when someone pointed out that the lady in the photo does not appear to be Ms. Gadde. “Close enough for me,” one person replied, without elaborating. There is no generous interpretation.
Facial-expression overinterpretation is not a practice exclusive to right-wing trolls. There was once a whole news cycle based on the impression, seemingly mistaken, that a white male teenager was smirking in a racist way at an Indigenous man in Washington. Nor would this be the first time an outraged online horde directed their fury at what turned out to be the wrong target.
Nothing about the fired-employees meme is unprecedented. But nor does it bode well for what Mr. Musk’s revamped public square will look like.