Even as Musk took a heap of backlash from investors, his Twitter followers mobilized to his defense, quick to find humility in Musk's behavior, saying that it's "human nature" to "hit back," while also suggesting that Musk's language was wrong. Musk supporters even used a common defense among Trump supporters, arguing that he didn't really mean what he said "literally."
Prominent Silicon Valley billionaire investor Peter Thiel, who along with Musk is a member of the original "PayPal mafia," defended his high-profile support of Trump right before the election by saying that the media's mistake was to take Trump literally rather than seriously.
"No matter what Trump says or Musk says, if they have built a real tribe, it doesn't matter. To maintain the adherence of their supporter to some degree it's less about content and more about emotional connection," said Daniel Shapiro of Harvard Medical School. "The tribe gives us a sense of safety. It gives us a sense of security. We know that our identity is being protected through that tribe," Shapiro said.
Van Bavel echoed Shapiro's sentiment, saying that tribalism can lead to the vehement support of leaders like Trump or Musk, even when there is clear evidence that they exercise poor judgment. "Once people identify strongly with a leader or party, they are motivated to distort their beliefs to support them," prompting individuals to look past Musk or Trump's atypical behavior.
The results of a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that a majority of Americans, 62 percent, disapprove of the president's Twitter use, but there is a large discrepancy between Republicans and Democrats. Only 38 percent of Republicans say the president's Twitter use is "a bad thing," versus 84 percent of Democrats. Experts also warn that combative criticism of leaders like Musk or Trump only fuels their base of supporters. They explain that tribes create a mentality of "an attack on one, attack on all."
With a growing emphasis on social media across politics and business, academics expect this mentality to intensify in the future.
"The internet, the evolution of technology, is leading us into unresearched areas for psychologists and social psychologists, but it's not going away. If we really want to generalize, will it create more tendencies for people to polarize? Will people become more committed to their groups and cause more antagonism between groups?" Forsyth asked. "I would be afraid that's likely."