Elon Musk Doesn’t Understand What ‘Blackmail’ Means. Companies Refusing to Pay for Your Ads Is Not Blackmail.

Jonathan Chait / New York Magazine
Elon Musk Doesn’t Understand What ‘Blackmail’ Means. Companies Refusing to Pay for Your Ads Is Not Blackmail. Elon Musk. (photo: Trevor Cokley/US Air Force/US DOD)

Companies refusing to pay for your ads is not blackmail.

Last night, Elon Musk gave an onstage interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin where he explained that he didn’t care if advertisers shunned X. “If somebody’s going to try to blackmail me with advertising, blackmail me with money,” he replied, “go fuck yourself.”

Sorkin naturally replied with incredulity that Musk would so blithely write off the major income source for a company he spent $44 billion to acquire. A smaller point that he overlooked is that Musk apparently does not understand the meaning of the word blackmail.

Blackmail is a specific crime in which the perpetrator threatens to release public information unless the victim pays them or performs some service. So, if Disney CEO Bob Iger learned some embarrassing secret about Musk — at this point, it would be difficult to imagine what that could possibly be — and told Musk he would reveal that information unless Musk paid him a billion dollars, that would be blackmail.

In general, blackmail is a crime where the criminal demands payment from the victim. It does not involve the criminal refusing to give money to the victim for a service they don’t want. Blackmailing somebody “with money,” as Musk put it, is not a thing.

Specifically, declining to spend advertising money on a platform because the owner not only permits crazy and offensive comments to proliferate on it but also personally contributes his own crazy and offensive comments to the site, is not only not blackmail, it’s not even in the same universe as blackmail. In a capitalist economy, firms are free to spend money as they choose. It is not only permissible, but expected, that they will allocate their advertising dollars to associate their brands with safe, noncontroversial content rather than conspiracy-addled maniacs like Musk.

Musk, of course, is free to disagree. He may well believe that his tweets endorsing white nationalism, Pizzagate, and other wild notions are wise and correct. That is a difference of opinion. But thinking he is the victim of blackmail is a difference of fact, and this is one more factual question where he is simply ignorant.

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