Tesla owners try to make sense of Elon Musk’s red pill moment

Carmaker boss told 34m Twitter followers to ‘take the red pill’

Owning a Tesla, the luxurious electric car, is a major liberal status symbol. It signals nothing more than good taste – the perfect balance of wealth with care for fossil fuels. But the man behind the brand is crafting a very different persona online that may now prove to be a challenge for his fans.

Elon Musk, the bombastic head of Tesla and SpaceX, exhorted his 34 million Twitter followers on Sunday to "take the red pill". The comment was quickly embraced by his followers, including Ivanka Trump, US president Donald Trump's elder daughter, who announced that she had taken the pill already.

The exchange referred to a scene from The Matrix, the 1999 science fiction action film. But the meaning of “red pill,” and the idea of taking it, has since percolated in online forums and become a deeply political metaphor. And with Musk and Ivanka Trump, the phrase is now lodged more fully into the mainstream.

So Tesla owners are having to grapple with a car that carries a few new connotations. “Honestly, Musk is becoming a liability and the Tesla board needs to seriously consider ousting him,” wrote Markos Moulitsas, author of “The Resistance Handbook: 45 Ways to Fight Trump.” “And I say that as a proud owner of a Tesla and a SpaceX fanatic who truly appreciates what he’s built.”


So what is the red pill?

In The Matrix, the movie's hero, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is given the option to take a pill that lets him see the truth. The world he thinks is real turns out to be an entertaining lie; his body is actually trapped in a farm where people are being used as human batteries. Taking the blue pill would let him return to living in the ignorant but blissful lie, while taking the red pill would launch him into an arduous journey through a brutal but fulfilling reality.

The idea of taking the red pill later grew to mean waking up to society’s grand lies. It was embraced by the right, especially by members of its youngest cohort who organised and spent their time in online forums such as Reddit and 4chan.

What’s going on with Elon Musk?

Musk has been pretty wild online for years now, which has made him a major internet celebrity with devoted fans who call themselves Musketeers. There are fan pages like Musk Memes with nearly 100,000 followers, and a Reddit page with 200,000 members in constant, extremely active conversation.

Most recently, Musk has been a prominent sceptic online of the coronavirus, calling the response to it a “panic” and “dumb” and wrongly predicting close to zero new cases by the end of April. As of Tuesday, there were more than 90,000 deaths from the virus and more than 1.5 million cases in the United States alone.

The night before Tesla’s earnings were released last month, Musk tweeted an anti-lockdown rallying cry: “FREE AMERICA NOW”. He had a showdown with local lawmakers, threatening to move Tesla headquarters out of California and deciding to reopen a Tesla factory in Fremont, California, despite the local county’s restrictions to prevent the virus from spreading. When state assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez objected on May 9th with an obscene tweet, Musk responded, “Message received”.

Defending his reopening of the Tesla factory, Musk wrote on Twitter that he would be on the factory floor and offered himself up to authorities. “I will be on the line with everyone else,” he posted on May 11th. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

This month, he and his girlfriend, Claire Boucher, the musician known as Grimes, had a child and named him X Æ A-12. And Musk announced that Tesla shares were too high and that he was selling almost all his possessions to the point of owning no house.

"We have a phrase, it's EMM – Elon Moves Markets," said Bill Selesky, an analyst at Argus Research who tracks how Musk's messages affect Tesla's stock price. "People want to listen to him no matter what he says. He tends to be thought of as a great visionary."

Selesky said that even Musk’s detractors carefully parse every tweet and utterance. “Plus, if you have a Tesla, nobody can ever complain about you because you’re good for society,” he added. This leads back to Musk’s message on Sunday, telling his followers to take the red pill.

Do The Matrix creators like this?

No. Lilly Wachowski, a “Matrix” co-creator, told Musk and Ivanka Trump in colourful language on Twitter that they could take a hike.

Is ‘red pill’ a Silicon Valley thing?

To some extent. There has long been a strain of men's rights activism in Silicon Valley, exemplified by James Damore, a former Google engineer who was fired after writing a memo arguing that the reason there are fewer female engineers is biological differences rather than discrimination.

Damore became a folk hero for a simmering movement in the technology industry of people who thought the efforts toward 50/50 representation at tech companies was absurd. Cassie Jaye, who calls herself a former feminist, made a 2016 documentary about the Red Pill community and said it had flourished in the tech world.

But the more common phrase in Silicon Valley to signal contrarian thinking is “narrative violation,” which is often used to describe an event that cuts against the mainstream media’s consensus on a topic. The idea is that there is a story being told about the world and how it works, but that the story is too simplistic to be entirely true and an event occasionally pops up to remind people of that.

Why does any of this matter?

Few products today are as deeply entwined with a person’s brand as Tesla is with Musk, and so his comments can feel personal for Tesla drivers. “As a Tesla owner, a 47-year-old male recovering from Covid-19, and someone very concerned simultaneously about the environment, the economy, my kids’ and my parents’ future, this ain’t great,” said Jeff Guilfoyle, a product manager at FireEye in San Diego. “This disease is no joke, and the long-term health impacts are unknown for survivors.”

Many have implored Musk online to stop. Raja Sohail Abbas, the chief executive of an outpatient psychiatric clinic in Allentown, Pennsylvania, wrote, “I am a Tesla owner and love the company. You have to stop being an idiot about this.” – New York Times Service