Not for the first time, Elon Musk has proved a willing vector for misinformation that unleashes an online attack on a perceived foe.
The news media was that foe over the weekend, when Musk promoted the idea that the Las Vegas Review-Journal had underplayed the heinous killing of a White former police chief. He suggested the coverage — specifically, a headline that initially labeled the event a “bike crash” — was symptomatic of the media’s tendencies regarding race, replying “1000%” to a post commenting that, “The media seems to under report wrong to white males.”
According to the Review-Journal’s executive editor, this led to an onslaught the likes of which he has never seen in his three decades in journalism.
The weekend’s episode, spurred not just by Musk but by the far-right influencers with which he has increasingly aligned, rests on a basic misrepresentation of the timeline and facts about the killing.
Yet Musk has an itchy Twitter finger, with consequences. His actions reflect a growing tendency on the American political right, embraced by Donald Trump, to fuel thinly constructed conspiracy theories that animate people. In many cases, these people have shown a willingness to lodge ugly attacks and threats to keep others in line. Mitt Romney recently reinforced this idea when he reflected on the post-Jan. 6 period, saying that Republicans toed Trump’s line out of literal fear for their livelihoods. Romney is hardly the first to gesture in this direction.
To recap the events in Las Vegas: Over the weekend, video emerged of the act that killed the 64-year-old retired police chief, Andreas Probst. The video was apparently shot by one of two people traveling in a stolen car. In the video, the driver appears to deliberately mow down Probst, who was riding his bicycle close to the curb on the right side of the road. The driver never stops, but the person shooting the video points the camera to the fatal scene behind him. Both people in the car have since been arrested. Police haven’t released details about them because they are minors. But plenty of online commenters deduced that the two men in the car were Black.
You begin to see the narrative that would quickly form — the idea that the media slow-rolled the murder of a White man by Black assailants.
Soon, users on Musk’s platform, including right-wing influences like Laura Loomer and Jordan Peterson, cast a spotlight on a Review-Journal headline that had described Probst as dying in a “bike crash.”
“‘Bike crash’ is another term for ‘murdered by two black criminals,’” Loomer wrote Saturday night while sharing a screenshot of the headline. “Shame on @reviewjournal.” (Police have not disclosed the race of the men in the car.)
Peterson promoted a similar post with the words “bike crash” in quotes.
Musk early Sunday morning reposted the same post Peterson had shared, asking “where is the media outrage? Now you begin to understand the lie.” Musk didn’t explicitly refer to the race of the assailants, but he has previously focused on supposedly under-covered Black crime.
Cropped out of the screenshots of the Review-Journal story, though, was an important detail: the date. The story — an obituary of Probst — was published Aug. 18, nearly a month earlier, and long before video of the apparently deliberate act emerged.
That video would first come to the attention of detectives on Aug. 29, according to the Review-Journal’s later reporting, and lead to charges of murder, as the Review-Journal reported Aug. 31.
Even after the date of the supposedly offending article was pointed out, some of the newspaper’s critics continued to press their point about White victims. They argued that the Aug. 18 headline was still misleading, regardless of when the video emerged. The newspaper had reported on Aug. 14 that this was a hit and run, they argue, so on Aug. 18 it was still minimizing what had happened.
(The newspaper over the weekend changed the words “bike crash” in the Aug. 18 story to “hit-and-run” hoping to, in the words of executive editor Glenn Cook, “calm the mob.”)
But there is little question that the heinousness of the act and the racial juxtaposition are what piqued people’s attention, and as of Aug. 18 the public had no real knowledge of either one of those things. Indeed, Cook notes in an editorial denouncing the onslaught of ugliness that the headline hadn’t generated “a single concern among our local readers” before this weekend.
That quickly changed, Cook said. He said users zeroed in on the reporter who wrote the Aug. 18 obituary and has covered Probst’s killing, Sabrina Schnur.
“They filled Twitter/X with comments and tags that ranged from anti-Semitic to death wishes for her and her dog,” Cook wrote. “She had more than 700 notifications of malevolence as of Sunday, and they’re still coming.”
Musk didn’t start the backlash, but the Review-Journal says he put it on steroids.
Newsmax host Greta Van Susteren took exception to the “bike crash” headline at 7:08 p.m. Saturday on X, formerly known as Twitter. Loomer lodged her post at 9:02 p.m. Peterson’s repost came at 10:06 p.m. Those three posts have since combined for more than 3 million views, according to X data. Musk’s post in the early morning hours the next day has registered more than 72 million.
Schnur told The Washington Post that many of the comments came Saturday, but Musk’s post Sunday spurred the most vitriol.
“The more hateful, directed personal attacks came Sunday,” after Musk’s post, she said. “Those people didn’t want to hear facts or argue over the story. They wanted a representative of the media to hate, and the comments were sexist, racist (about the passenger and victim’s skin colors), anti-Semitic and just more ruthless about me personally.”
Cook added that Musk’s post “significantly escalated the volume of posts, comments, messages, but also the tone. I mean, there’s no question in our minds that this would not have been as bad as it was if he had not sent that tweet.”
The post Musk shared soon included a Community Note (a feature that allows X users to add context), pointing to how the “bike crash” headline long predated the emergence of the video. It’s not clear when the note was appended, and Community Notes hasn’t responded to a Post request.
But the website lists the note as having been submitted hours before Musk promoted the post, and users began referencing a Community Note on the post within about an hour of Musk reposting it.
The point isn’t that Musk or anyone else explicitly summoned the mob. None of the above did. (Neither Musk, Loomer nor Peterson responded to a request for comment.) It’s that it was a predictable consequence given everything we know about the proliferation of ugliness on his platform since he took over. Given that — and especially given Musk’s reach — caution would seem to be the watchword.
Musk’s ability to stoke the ire of mobs has been clear for years. This is hardly the first time he’s invited his devoted followers to assume the worst about his foes. In 2019, it was calling a diver involved in rescuing boys from an underwater cave in Thailand a “pedo guy.” Last year, it was surfacing a fringe website’s report suggesting that Paul Pelosi’s assault had resulted from “a dispute with a male prostitute.” (Musk later apologized for this one.) Later in the year, it was suggesting that a former high-ranking Twitter employee wanted to sexualize children.
Each, like the Review-Journal flap, fits with a predominant narrative on the right, whether it’s the establishment media’s supposedly soft approach to Black crime, the deviance of the political left, or the purported epidemic of child sex abuse. And each narrative has the predictable consequence of taking hold among a portion of the country that has shown a predilection for thinly constructed claims about its foes. Musk, after all, isn’t the only one who distrusts the mainstream media and neglects to do the most basic research.
But it comes at a cost for those on the wrong side.