Payback Pals

What It’s Like When Elon Musk’s Twitter Mob Comes After You

When female journalists like me dare to question the SpaceX and Tesla founder, there’s a predictable result: We get called bitches, idiots, and worse.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Female journalists who cover Elon Musk have the same personal rule: Mention his name on Twitter at your peril.

That’s because there is an army—mostly young, mostly white, almost entirely men—that marches behind him. These MuskBros, as we call them, make it their mission to descend on women who criticize Musk, and tear them to pieces. I know, because it has happened to me. More than once.

Last week I took to Twitter, frustrated over Musk’s attacks on the press and his tweet at molecular biologist Upulie Divisekera, in which he called her nanoscience “bs.” I was concerned that Musk doesn’t realize the broader impact of his lashing out. With every criticism lobbed at a journalist (or a scientist), Musk reinforces the growing public mistrust of essential institutions seeded by the Donald Trump wing of the GOP. And, though the Tesla co-founder later clarified that he believes some nanoscience is legitimate, the downstream result of his original tweet is that Divisekera has spent days defending her science and explaining why it’s legitimate.

And so, with the consequences in the back of my mind, I prepared for the worst and tweeted this thread:

“A billionaire w/massive power @elonmusk lashed out at two of the most under-attack industries in the country: Journalism and Science. Both are essential for democracy. We should criticize our important institutions, but we shouldn’t threaten their existence w/powerful ignorance.

“In this country we deify self-made men who create empires and when they behave irresponsibly we call them ‘eccentric’ and say the good they have done for the world excuses their bad behavior.

“But instead we need to make these men look at themselves and recognize the true scope of their power and the RESPONSIBILITY TO HUMANITY that comes with it.

“Casual attacks on Journalism and Science, that are not carefully thought out, when you have a voice that reaches millions of people, are incredibly dangerous and have lasting impact. Twitter may be an informal place, but it has very, very real implications in that world at large.

“Elon Musk is an irresponsible person who doesn’t seem to realize (or care) about the damage he is doing. Our love affair with billionaires needs to end.”

My accusation that Musk criticized science got his attention. To my surprise, he actually replied:

“I have never attacked science. Definitely attacked misleading journalism like yours though.”

Now, we can argue semantics here. Did he actually attack science? Is a tweet actually journalism? Has he ever even read any of the articles I’ve written? Honestly, none of that really matters. What matters is that the aftermath of Musk’s tweet essentially proved my entire point. Because before he commented on my tweet, it was floundering in relative obscurity. Let’s be honest, I’m a pretty small-bananas science journalist with a medium-size following. But after Musk replied, my mentions descended into madness.

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Musk’s tweet turned into a singularity of hate against currently targeted institutions in our country. The MuskBros had a lot of opinions about me being a woman criticizing their hero. And the MAGA set were thrilled that someone with such a big following was on their side against science and journalism. (Many of these tweets have been reported by me and my followers and taken down by order of Twitter.) But here’s my favorite:

I also enjoyed some lovely emails:

And even Instagram got in on the fun!

(Pretty sure that “straightened her hair” comment is meant to point out that I’m a Jew.)

And, look, you don’t have to take my word for it. Maybe a bunch of men calling me a cunt doesn’t strike you as harassment. The thing is, many, many other female journalists have experienced the same pile-on from MuskBros every time they tweet criticism of him. Shannon Stirone, a freelance journalist who covers space for publications like Popular Science, Wired, and The Atlantic, told me: “Sadly there is a pattern to what happens after criticizing Elon. There is a reason I don’t do it very often because I don’t enjoy dealing with the backlash from the army of men who come out to defend him. I’ve gotten replies calling me a ‘stupid bitch’ and names along the same vein. They are so deeply angry and instead of using their words they lash out in the only way they seem to know how, which is to be abusive and demeaning.

“It is as though they’ve invested their own identity as males into Elon and his work that when anyone (especially women) dares to say anything that isn’t ‘praise for Elon’ it’s only a matter of minutes before the nasty messages come flowing in,” Stirone said. “That ‘bro’ culture is aggressive and deeply misogynistic. It’s exhausting and painful to watch my female colleagues get threats and hurtful messages sent to them all because we called him out.”

Mika McKinnon, a geophysicist and freelance science journalist who writes for Gizmodo, Racked, New Scientist, and others, has said she has stopped tagging Elon, SpaceX, or Tesla in any of her tweets in an attempt to protect herself from the onslaught of abuse.

“The cost of joining a larger conversation is too high. I’m good at handling barrages of hate mail—I was working for Gawker during Gamergate—but it takes energy and it’s easy to miss opportunities when I need to heavily filter my email and social-media mentions,” McKinnon said. “This is the only person and company I deliberately avoid tagging out of a desire to not get swamped. It makes me sad that engaging in conversation is so painful, and it took me too long to realize it wasn’t worth the cost.”

McKinnon also pointed out that her worst “sexism in journalism” moments have happened while attending SpaceX media events. At the launch for Jason-3, MuskBros lobbed misogynistic comments at her, including asking: “Are you sure you’re in the right place, little girl?”

During the event, McKinnon says she was inspired to start an “Assholes Fieldbook” as a way of dealing with the abuse “where I respond to blatant sexism by conducting a field interview to cheerfully create a record of sexist assholes as they’re obviously an endangered species that will die out soon.”

At one point, after calling Tesla “annoying” on Twitter, McKinnon collected 200 entries for her fieldbook. They included death threats and rape threats. “It took over a week for the email barrage to slow,” McKinnon said. “During which my increased email filters incorrectly junked increasingly urgent messages from an editor that led to an article getting killed.”

Brianna Wu, a software engineer who was one of the targets of Gamergate and an expert in being harassed online, told me she “absolutely” has experienced the wrath of the MuskBros.

“There seems to be a contingency that feels the need to defend Musk from any statement that could be considered critical,” said Wu, who is now a candidate for the House of Representatives in Massachusetts. “They are thoroughly unpleasant to deal with. I dread @ mentioning Elon, because it’s going to make Twitter unusable. A billionaire does not need to be shielded from critique.”

Sharon Weinberger, executive editor of Foreign Policy, shared with me some of the direct messages she received after criticizing Elon’s recent Twitter behavior:

Jessica Huseman, a national politics reporter at ProPublica, also caught the attention of the MuskBro army after she responded to his tweets saying journalists are beholden to clicks and advertisers, by pointing out that the investigation that originally set off his tirade was conducted by Reveal, a nonprofit organization that doesn’t worry about clicks or advertising. She went on to criticize his “hissy-fit” against reporters, share several articles that investigated problems at Tesla, and detail the harassment she received as a result.

But, setting aside the harassment and hate speech that is directed at our looks, maybe this isn’t just happening to women? Maybe Elon’s fanbros are so fervent they will decimate any person that dares to criticize him regardless of their gender? I wondered this too, so I asked Roberto Baldwin, a reporter who covers the automotive industry for Engadget and writes regularly about Tesla. During Musk’s recent Twitter outing, Baldwin wrote a post titled “Elon Musk Needs to Chill Out.” In it, Baldwin said Elon needs to “stick to building cars and digging tunnels and shooting things into space.” He called Musk dumb and dangerous and said he needs to grow a thicker skin.

The retaliation from the MuskBros for this slight—significantly more aggressive than when McKinnon said Tesla was “annoying”—was minimal. Baldwin told me he received “very little blowback,” because “I’m tall, white, and have a penis so my mentions are nothing,”

“If I were browner and had boobs,” Baldwin continued, “it would be a shit show.”

Frankly, it’s probably a massively stupid move for me the write this article, and for the female journalists I’ve quoted to agree to be part of it. The Twitter hate-machine is so predictable I already know exactly what’s going to go down after it publishes. In fact, I’ve already started to get some of it. After I put out a call for female journalists to share their stories with me, MuskBros have started victim-blaming (after all, didn’t I invite this abuse when I posted about him on a public forum?), accused me of writing a hit piece against Musk, called me biased, and told me I’m overreacting. Here is just a tiny fraction of the messages I’ve received once people heard I was writing this story—I’ve left out the hate speech and death threats:

So what’s my goal in writing this, knowing full well the barrage of hate it’s going to bring down on me? First, I believe that abuse and harassment like this should not be allowed to live in the shadows of @ replies and hide in the quiet of private DMs and emails. If you’re going to call someone a cunt for doing their job, then you can go ahead and do that in front of the world.

Second, I believe that it’s important for everyone to know, understand, and see that being a woman and a journalist means that it has literally become part of our job to field these kinds of messages on a regular basis. And I’m white (though being a Jew isn’t helping me avoid online hate speech, let’s be honest)—I can’t even imagine what it must be like for journalists of color or LGBTQ+ reporters.

But in my wildest dreams, I’m writing this because I want Elon to see and understand the aftermath of his tweets, because I honestly don’t know if he realizes the true extent of the wrath he brings down on people by inadvertently pointing his fanbase at them. And if he really is the good person fighting to better humanity that all of his fans say he is, then I’d hope he would want to know.

Elon wrote me a single sentence that, while insulting, wasn’t even really all that bad. And then he moved on and probably didn’t think about me again. I’m betting he doesn’t even remember tweeting at me. But in responding to me, Musk has subjected me to days and days of tweets, emails, direct messages, and Instagram tags. I was even at the top of Reddit for a second there. So, Elon, I ask you: Was what happened to me and other women you tweeted at the result you wanted? Did the punishment we received fit the crime?

In my original tweet, I asked you to think about the broader consequences of your comments. I think you feel that you’re defending yourself and your underdog status—and maybe when it comes to your businesses that is a justified stance. But as a billionaire with millions of followers, you’re not an underdog—you are a very powerful man.

I would just ask that before you point your fan army at any single person you pause and consider those broader consequences. It’s a cliche but it’s also correct: With great power comes great responsibility. And I can guarantee every woman that ever tweets your name certainly pauses first and considers if what she’s about to say is worth the inevitable impending abuse.