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What Elon Musk's involvement in politics means for the world

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Elon Musk is the richest person in the world. His business empire encompasses social media, space exploration, electric vehicles and satellite communications. And those businesses are part of what's pulling him more deeply into disputes over matters of politics, war and peace and global security. On the social media platform X, he has upset advertisers. Earlier today, he called for Disney CEO Bob Iger to be fired. NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn and national security correspondent Greg Myre are here to discuss Musk's entanglements. Hey, guys.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey.

SHAPIRO: Bobby, to start with you, the federal government has really come to rely on businesses that Elon Musk runs. How deep are his connections to the U.S. government?

ALLYN: You know, Ari, really quite deep in a number of key areas. Where both the federal government and the rest of the private sector have underinvested, Elon Musk has stepped in and really dominated. I mean, for instance, you know, 60% of the country's electric vehicle chargers are controlled by Tesla. So the Biden administration really has no other choice but to work with Musk in developing green energy policies. Another Musk company, SpaceX, operates the only U.S.-made rockets that can send astronauts to the International Space Station. So through Tesla and SpaceX, Musk's companies have been awarded, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts. With the work Musk is doing, sometimes there's no other alternative. So the federal government just can't disentangle itself from the Musk empire.

SHAPIRO: And with X, formerly known as Twitter, Musk also runs what, at least until recently, had been one of the internet's main town squares. How is that company doing, given all the debate around it?

ALLYN: Not well. When it comes to electric vehicle innovation and reusable spaceships, Musk is indeed something of a business genius, right? But a social media company is just a different beast. And Musk has, as we know, completely upended X with policies aimed at making it more of a so-called free speech platform. But he hasn't been able to make the company less reliant on advertising. About 90% of the company's revenue comes from advertising. That's how they keep the lights on, which is a big problem now, Ari, because major corporations are fleeing in droves in response to a number of controversies, in particular his endorsement of an antisemitic post. And recently, he cursed out advertisers who have left with the F-word. We don't know exactly how much pain X is in right now, but many big advertisers have left - Apple, Coca-Cola, Disney, Walmart, the list goes on. So they're in trouble right now.

SHAPIRO: Greg, how did Musk go from being a business titan to being so prominent in international politics?

MYRE: We really saw this take off when Russia invaded Ukraine last year. Ukraine faced a real challenge with front line battlefield communication, so it publicly asked Musk on Twitter, ironically, if he could help. Musk jumped in immediately and provided Starlink. This is a satellite internet system, and he gave it to Ukraine's military for free. And it was a real lifesaver for the military. It allowed them to communicate among themselves, gather intelligence on the Russians and do all this in front line areas where otherwise they would have pretty much been blind. Now, I spoke about this with Dmitri Alperovitch, head of the think tank Silverado Policy Accelerator, and he follows the war very closely.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: I think Starlink has been absolutely existential. I cannot imagine how the Ukrainians would continue this fight without being able to use Starlink. It is absolutely critical for their success.

SHAPIRO: It seems like this would make Musk a hero in Ukraine, right?

MYRE: Well, initially, until about a year ago, when he changed his tune and started making very favorable noises about Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. Musk called for peace negotiations. He tweeted his own peace proposal, which called for giving away Ukrainian territory, like Crimea. So this outraged Ukrainians. And Musk also threatened to cut off Starlink, which he said was costing him several hundred million dollars a year. So this led the Pentagon to jump in and work out a deal, announced this summer, where it now pays for Starlink. So this has been resolved, but the Pentagon deal, again, reflects Musk's growing ties with the U.S. government.

SHAPIRO: He also made a visit to Israel. What happened there?

MYRE: So after Hamas attacked, Musk - back in October, Musk went on X, and he reposted a statement by someone else that said, quote, "Jewish communities push hatred against whites." And so this ignited a firestorm, and it came amid growing criticism that antisemitic comments were being widely spread on X. So Musk went to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed him around southern Israel, communities ravaged by Hamas attacks. And this brings us to this recent interview at an event hosted by The New York Times.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, and remind us what he said there.

MYRE: Well, he apologized for his antisemitic post, and he said that might literally be the worst and dumbest post I've ever done. Here's a bit more of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELON MUSK: The Jewish people have been persecuted for thousands of years. Everyone here has seen the massive demonstrations for Hamas in every major city in the West. That should be jarring.

MYRE: So we should note that many people in these rallies said they were there to support Palestinians, not Hamas. Point is, Musk was trying to mend fences with the Jewish communities. Yet at this very same event, he went off the rails and made incendiary comments at advertisers who've stopped doing business with X.

SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, saying today that Bob Iger should be fired as CEO of Disney. Bobby, Musk said recently that the advertiser exodus could make X fail. Is that true?

ALLYN: In short, we just don't know. Musk taking the company private last year meant its financials are no longer publicly available. But you know, Ari, for months now, Musk has floated this idea of filing for bankruptcy, which could help him reorganize the company's debt and maybe renegotiate the terms of the billions of dollars of debt he took out to buy Twitter. But, you know, some have speculated that perhaps Musk is deliberately trying to kill the company. We don't have any proof of that, but - you know, and intentionally devaluing an asset could get him into some trouble legally. It is within the realm of possibility that X could go bankrupt, that Musk just cuts his losses and moves on. But if we know one thing about Elon Musk, it's that he doesn't always give up so quickly. So X's future is just really up in the air right now. I should add this - I reached out to Musk for comment, and I haven't heard back.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Bobby Allyn and Greg Myre. Thank you.

MYRE: Sure thing.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.