Musk and Zuckerberg Pull a Page From Putin’s Playbook


Back in July 2022, amid an ongoing Dogecoin racketeering lawsuit and a court battle over the future of Twitter, Elon Musk took a little getaway to Mykonos on a $20,000-per-week luxury yacht. When topless photos of the richest man in the world were leaked by paparazzi, the internet ruthlessly fat-shamed him and bullied him for his pale skin.

The moment harkened back to the July 2020 beach days of Mark Zuckerberg, who was caught by paparazzi with a ghostly face full of white sunscreen and looking like a little kid slathered in sunscreen by his mom. The photos came amid an ongoing lawsuit and advertiser exodus over allegations of Facebook’s “failure on racial issues,” and they probably did not provide the portrayal of seriousness and strength Zuck was hoping for at that moment. 

If recent events are any evidence, neither billionaire forgot how the internet made them feel. 

In June 2023, they announced they were interested in displaying their physical prowess in an MMA-style cage match—once again making summer headlines for things other than their ongoing lawsuits and advertising woes. This week, they are reigniting media interest with a heated, manly debate about whether or not they will actually get shirtless and fight each other. Over the weekend, Zuckerberg said it probably isn’t going to happen because Musk isn’t “serious” enough about the full-contact sport of mixed martial arts, while Musk announced last night he wanted to show up uninvited to Zuckerberg’s home to settle the duel.

On the surface, the battle of the pale middle-aged billionaires is just a bizarre, dystopian meme. But it’s also a tried and true method to change the narrative. 

I’d like to direct you to some notoriously ridiculous, hyper-manly, shirtless pictures of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin that went viral in 2017. Yup, you heard me correctly. Cue topless Putin on horseback. Catching fish. Polar plunging. Immortalized in a meme of him riding a bear. And then, of course, there are the viral images pumped out by the Kremlin of Putin sparring with professional judo fighters.

The goal of those photos was simple. To help shuck the stereotype of a weak, paper-pushing, armchair politician, in favor of an image of physical strength and vitality—the kind of display of health from an authoritarian playbook that tries to keep a leader in power for years and years. 

This is to say, Zuck and Musk’s recent proposed shirtless MMA fight is just another sad example of masculine peacocking. And arguably, a spectacle intended to distract us from the fallibility and failings of their respective empires.

So next time you see a billionaire—or hell, even a controversial millionaire influencer—trying to deck it out in the ring (or a Roman colosseum), think twice about what kind of propaganda they’re trying to pump out… and what narrative they’re trying to avoid.


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