Elon Musk elicited backlash from liberal leaders and cheers from some conservative ones in response to a viral tweet on Sunday that called for Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top expert on infectious disease, to be prosecuted.
The polarizing tweet, which garnered more than a million "likes," arrived about six weeks after Musk told advertisers that he sought to make Twitter "a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner."
Musk, a longtime critic of COVID-19 lockdowns, who has voiced a series of conservative opinions since acquiring Twitter in October, tweeted: "My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci."
The message to Musk's 120 million followers appeared to attack Fauci while mocking members of the LGBTQ community and allies who sometimes state their pronouns to communicate their gender identity.
Fauci, the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He will step down from his current roles later this month.
Many Democratic officials and commentators condemned Musk's tweet, defending Fauci and expressing support for LGBTQ people.
"I'm a big fan of Dr. Fauci and how he's calmly guided our country through crisis," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. "Courting vaccine deniers doesn't seem like a smart business strategy, but the issue is this: could you just leave a good man alone in your seemingly endless quest for attention?"
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called it "disgusting" and "divorced from reality" during Monday's White House briefing.
"These attacks, these personal attacks that we've been seeing are dangerous -- on Dr. Fauci and other public health professionals as well -- they are disgusting and they are divorced from reality," Jean-Pierre said.
Astronaut Scott Kelly, the twin brother of Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz, tweeted to his 5.3 million followers: "Elon, please don't mock and promote hate toward already marginalized and at-risk-of-violence members of the #LGBTQ+ community."
"Furthermore, Dr Fauci is a dedicated public servant whose sole motivation was saving lives," Kelly added.
In the public health sphere, the tweet drew outrage and debate over whether to leave the platform rather than continue to endure threats and criticism for posts about COVID-19.
"I'm really struggling with whether I should remain here, given the CEO is hell-bent on turning this site into a disinformation machine for persecuting scientists and marginalized groups. There's value in pushback but just using the platform creates value for the guy in charge," Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist who has had a large Twitter following throughout the pandemic, tweeted.
Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital, tweeted in support of Fauci, but then said he was facing a horde of attacks for speaking out.
"For the record: Dr. Fauci has done nothing wrong, except serve our nation. In the meantime, Mr. Musk should know that 200,000 Americans needlessly lost their lives from Covid due to this kind of antiscience rhetoric and disinformation. Elon, I'm asking you to take down this Tweet," Hotez wrote.
Other public health organizations said they would leave Twitter if Musk didn't remove the tweet.
Emory University's School of Infectious Disease said Musk was "antithetical to what we stand for, insulting science, infectious disease, and people with trans/nonbinary identities who suffer from enough stigma."
They encouraged all infectious disease programs to "strongly consider leaving this space permanently if this is not taken down."
And some, like Rutgers University's School of Public Health, considered Musk's tweet the final straw.
"#RutgersSPH is leaving Twitter! As a school that espouses zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination, we've made the decision to leave," Rutgers University School of Public Health said.
Some far-right conservative leaders, by contrast, praised the message from Musk.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Georgia, whom Musk reinstated on Twitter after a previous permanent ban over the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, applauded the attack on Fauci.
"I affirm your pronouns Elon," Greene said.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent anti-vaccine activist, celebrated Musk for "looking beyond the propaganda."
Fauci is not on social media himself, though he told ABC News' Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton that he might have to consider it in the future, once he no longer has the public platform he has within government to defend himself.
"I've never had to resort to that now, because of the relationship I've had with the standard press, to be able to communicate things. But there may be a time in the reasonable future where I would use that. I wouldn't rule that out," Fauci said in an interview airing on GMA3 Tuesday, December 13th.
The more pressing concern, when it comes to misinformation and attacks on social media, is his and his family's safety, Fauci has said.
"When you analyze it on a point by point, or case by case basis, it's preposterous, how someone who's done nothing but encourage the population of this country and the world, to abide by good public health practices, like getting vaccinated, and keeping up to date on your boosters, and to be careful, such as with indoor congregate settings, that person, i.e. me, all of a sudden becomes the object of vicious attacks," Fauci told Ashton.
"That doesn't make any sense. So if I try to psychoanalyze that, I'd be going in circles. I'd never be able to figure that one out. So the only way to function well is, to just don't pay any attention to it," he said.
The tweet targeting Fauci came hours after Musk shared a meme that mocked Fauci over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The comments from Musk are the latest in a series of conservative Twitter posts, including an endorsement last month for Republican candidates in the midterm elections.
Since he acquired Twitter in October, Musk has made some changes long sought by conservatives. He reinstated some formerly suspended accounts such as those belonging to Republican leaders like former President Donald Trump and Greene, and he stopped enforcement of a policy prohibiting the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.
Musk also revamped Twitter's subscription service, Twitter Blue, allowing users to access verification if they pay a monthly fee of $8. The service was suspended after it gave rise to a flood of fake accounts impersonating public figures and brands but has since been reinstated.
A slew of major companies, including General Motors and Pfizer, have announced a pause of advertising on Twitter. Some of the companies have said they need time to evaluate their advertising presence on Twitter as the company pursues a new direction.
Musk, who said he overpaid for the platform at the purchasing price of $44 billion, faces pressure to boost the company's revenue. Last month, he said that the company is losing $4 million each day.
On the same day as the tweet targeting Fauci, Musk endured an extended chorus of loud boos after being brought on stage at a comedy performance by Dave Chappelle at the Chase Arena in San Francisco.
A video posted on Twitter shows crowd members booing Musk while he stands on stage alongside Chappelle.
"Ladies and gentlemen, make some noise for the richest man in the world," Chappelle told the audience.
After the boos, Musk told Chappelle: "You weren't expecting this, were you?"