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The Controversy Brewing on Elon Musk’s Wikipedia Page
So far, editors have reverted the many attempts to replace all references to “Tesla CEO” with “Tesla Technoking” on Musk’s Wikipedia page.
Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
On April 25, after Elon Musk announced that he would be buying Twitter for $44 billion and pledged to run the social media platform as a “free speech absolutist,” Wikipedia’s volunteer editors knew that they had a lot of work ahead of them—and they were right. One contributor soon added the words “Owner of Twitter” to Musk’s Wikipedia page, language that another editor promptly deleted with the comment, “He does not yet own Twitter!” At press time, a precautionary banner on the Musk Wikipedia article warns readers about the likelihood of speedy revisions. “This article is about a person involved in a current acquisition. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses, and initial news reports may be unreliable,” the banner reads.
Since 2015, the English language version of Musk’s Wikipedia page has received more than 110 million direct page views. Snippets from Musk’s Wikipedia article also appear in the Google search results for “Elon Musk,” a term that has been searched 479 million times in the past 30 days, according to Google Trends, with a pronounced spike in searches following Musk’s announcement about purchasing Twitter on April 25.
Since the page was created in 2004 (here’s what it looked like then, when it was fewer than 100 words), some 3,240 Wikipedia editors have collaboratively written the Musk Wikipedia article, which covers the billionaire’s early life in South Africa and Canada; his leadership roles with PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla; and his proposed acquisition of Twitter. Over the course of about 8,600 words, the Wikipedia page outlines Musk’s career highlights—like the 2020 launch making SpaceX the first private company to place a person in orbit and dock a crewed spacecraft with the International Space Station, and how the Starlink network of satellites has provided some internet access to Ukraine during the 2022 Russian invasion. The article also lists Musk’s controversies, including a 2018 lawsuit brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that Musk’s tweet about having “secured” funding to take Tesla private at $420 per share was false and damaging to investors. (Musk settled the SEC lawsuit in 2018.)
Reading the “personal life” section of a celebrity’s Wikipedia’s page has always been one of the internet’s greatest pleasures, and in Musk’s case, that portion is a total trip. It recounts Musk’s marriages, remarriage, and divorces, together with his relationships with Amber Heard and the Canadian musician Grimes. There’s also a somewhat convoluted paragraph explaining the naming process for Musk’s son—originally named “X Æ A-12,” the child is now “X AE A-XII” Musk because California regulations prohibit the use of any characters not in the modern English alphabet.
Overall, Musk’s Wikipedia page has been designated as a “good article” by the site’s volunteer reviewers, meaning that it’s noteworthy for being well-written, containing factually accurate information, providing broad coverage, and adopting a neutral point of view. According to Wikipedia, only about 0.5 percent of articles on the site are awarded with this recognition. Then again, not every Wikipedia editor thinks the Musk Wikipedia page is up to snuff. More than once, Wikipedia editors have had to remind one another that the page should provide only previously published information and should not be influenced by any opinions that the editor holds about the controversial celebrity. On the article’s talk page, a place for editors to chat with one another and raise proposed changes, many of the discussions revolve around whether the article is biased. As the user Warbayx put it, “literally 1/4 of Musk’s front page is dedicated to criticism, how can anyone think this is unbiased and fair?” To which the user PraiseVedic replied, “I would say that more than 1/4 of the coverage Musk receives in the media is critical of him, so if anything Wikipedia is under-criticizing him, if that’s a thing.” One suspects the balance of criticism might never feel right to so-called Musketeers, a group that Wikipedia sums up as “Fans of Elon Musk, usually in the pejorative sense.”
But there is in fact someone who cares more about Musk’s Wikipedia page than even his most diehard fanboy—Elon Musk himself. All signs indicate that the world’s richest man is obsessed with how he is described on the free internet encyclopedia.
In other news, the editing process for Infodemic is going well. On Monday, I received thoughtful strategic comments from the editorial team on the first 100 pages. We are aiming to make the book, to borrow a word favored by excited reviewers, “unputdownable.”
Reminder that you can pre-order the book via Inkshares. And if you pre-order a physical version, I can arrange to send you a signed copy. ☺️