Musk Tweetstorm Targets Media

Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk criticised “holier than thou” and “hypocritical” media companies in a series of tweets last night. He claimed the media had lost the public’s trust and proposed a website, which he plans to call Pravda, to enable readers and viewers to rank the press according to commitment to truth and credibility.

While 85 percent plus of Musk’s Twitter followers supported his idea of a credibility ranking system for news, reporters challenged his accusations, and he was compared to President Donald Trump for his vocal disdain for the press.

Musk’s Tweetstorm follows (and appears to be partly inspired by) a spell of negative news stories for his clean energy and auto firm Tesla. Tesla doesn’t advertise in the traditional sense and instead relies on word-of-mouth and media coverage which have been largely positive.

A lot of this is down to Musk’s charisma. His Space X company wows viewers with dazzling rocket launches (and, even more dazzlingly, landings), he plans Mars colonisation and drilling Hyperloop networks under California. He delighted geeks by naming Space X assets after spacecraft from cult science fiction novels. More than anyone else, he made electric cars desirable (so much so that’s it’s difficult to get one). He’s even made a global audience pay attention to the trucking industry – the first time truckers have been cool since 1978.

That was when the tech news cycle was positive. The fortunes of hardware like electric vehicles shouldn’t necessarily be tied to press concerns about social media like Facebook and Twitter, but when tech titans ride the news cycle upwards, it’s not surprising when they’re dragged down when the media turns on the tech industry.

Donald Trump’s election appears to have been a turning point. Prior to that, critics of tech and social media in particular were fringe voices. Readers – and reporters, and their publishers – were more interested in Mark Zuckerberg the youthful billionaire philanthropist than Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of a rather sinister global corporation that generates addiction, depression and privacy violations, while allowing users to be bombarded with mind-altering “fake news.”

Trump’s election came as a series of other tech doubts went mainstream in the press. Issues of sexual harassment and lack of diversity in the industry made the headlines of tech blogs. Twitter struggled with reports of trolling and extremist content. Big tech tax shenanigans inflamed hard-pressed citizens. The collapse of blood-testing firm Theranos and the decline of media corp Yahoo! added to tech scepticism. Snap’s IPO cast doubts on the value of privately held “unicorns”, the focus of numerous fawning profiles through to 2016.

Facebook and Google’s domination of the digital advertising industry may have been more keenly felt by the news business. The media had pivoted to video on Facebook’s command; entire operations followed a distributed content model to reach the billions of readers on social. But by 2018, nearly every new dollar spent on digital media advertising was going to Facebook or Google. Revenues for publications were crashing. Jobs looked precarious.

Musk’s leadership meant Tesla was less affected by souring sentiment than others. Certainly, growing numbers of the Tesla faithful worry about delivery dates for their Model 3s. Tesla is the most shorted stock on the US market. Concerns about Tesla accidents – with and without human drivers – hit the headlines in ways other vehicles don’t. Reveal, an investigative news site, claimed Tesla played down the number of worker injuries in its factory. Consumer Reports refused to give the Model 3 a recommendation.

Yet while there’s no shortage of comment about the toxicity of Facebook or Twitter – even to the point where lawmakers are suggesting Facebook be broken up – who really wants Tesla to fail? Or Space X, or even The Boring Company? Musk has built his recent career on critics saying “you can’t do this” and proving them at least partially wrong. People root for him.

Being vocal is part of Musk’s style. He engages with his followers on Twitter. He contributes to philosophical blogs. He appears persuadable, arguing the case for remaining on Trump’s advisory industrial council before leaving when he felt unable to square the President’s withdrawal from the Paris accords with his environmentalism.

On the other hand, it’s going to be difficult to persuade the media that Musk’s tweets aren’t the petulant complaints of a rich man who’s discovering he can’t always bend reality to his will. Trump-like outbursts aren’t likely to win him friends in the media, and the “Elon Musk is the New Donald Trump” accusations are coming thick and fast.

Criticising the left-wing investigative website that broke the story on Tesla’s safety record isn’t going to make him popular on the Bay Area dinner party circuit:

(Tesla has previously described Reveal’s investigation as “an ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign against Tesla.”)

So, Musk and Tesla investors can brace themselves for more bad press. Musk’s team has already registered a company called Pravda – in October, though it’s not clear if it was intended as a news review business (commentators are enjoying the Russian connection).

What would a ratings system for journalism look like?

Facebook is already working on ranking news by “Trusted Sources” in an attempt to flush out fake news. It uses fact-checking site Snopes to investigate questionable stories (and Snopes itself gets checked and accused of bias in return).

Ranking journalists isn’t a great way to prevent abuse. Online polls are easily fiddled or gamed. Social media makes it easy to organise campaigns against publishers you find offensive – see the recent campaign in the UK that marshalled Twitter users to persuade advertisers to withdraw advertising from conservative newspapers. It’s not difficult to envisage a similar campaign to downvote press campaign groups disapprove of. News sources could urge their followers to upvote them, even if their content is more inflammatory than trustworthy.

If Elon Musk is unhappy with the media – and he’s still online as we post, taking on comments from all comers – then he might be better advised to fund a news site rather than rank others. That said, his suspicions of media bias and corruption are likely to be confirmed by the poll he’s running: With more than 550,000 votes, almost 88 percent support the idea of a ranking system for the press.


And that’s despite hundreds of news stories, from the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph down, attacking Musk for his tweets.

We’ll be interested to see what conclusions Elon Musk draws about the media once this storm has subsided. What we, the public, learn about social media might be more pertinent.

Social media like Twitter exists to catch you saying stupid things. There is pressure to engage with others – the public or celebrities – and react to news you find offensive. We’re led to generate more content to keep our profiles buoyant and growing. Public figures stay in the public eye by posting – it’s a career for some social media influencers and controversialists. We generate so much content we’re certain to post something stupid, or something false, or that can be construed by some observers as offensive. And there’s always someone out there to call you out on it when you do. In Musk’s case, he took on the US and international press. His fans think he has a case, even if media sentiment is turning firmly against him.