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Musk Slams Journalists & Big Oil In Twitter Storm

Elon Musk went on a Twitter rampage yesterday, saying negative press attention about Tesla is driven by Big Oil and the auto industry. Is he right?

Elon Musk seems to be channeling Donald Trump these days. Upset by negative publicity about Tesla, he has lashed out on Twitter, blaming Big Oil and Big Auto for siccing the dogs on  him. He also blames journalists for being feckless lapdogs who sit up and beg to please their corporate masters. It’s all about clicks, he says. Pretty strange behavior for one whose success has largely been built on the strength of millions of clicks. How sharper than a serpent’s tongue, Elon.

Musk’s Twitter storm began after Ben Kallo, an analyst at Baird, sent a note to clients on May 23 saying, “Negative headlines have increased substantially in the past month and, in our opinion, increasingly immaterial reports have dominated news cycles. We think we have hit a peak in negative coverage/sentiment, and believe shares could appreciate significantly with execution, which should coincide with an improvement in sentiment.” Kallo reaffirmed that $411 per share is his target price for Tesla stock, according to CNBC.

Musk picked up on Kallo’s comment and tweeted, “The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them.” Not content with that blast, Musk soon added, “Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired. Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn’t advertise, but fossil fuel companies & gas/diesel car companies are among world’s biggest advertisers.” Then he suggested distrust of the media was one of the reasons Donald Trump got elected. [We won’t go into the fact that the media largely paraded Donald’s statements around, gave him billions in free airtime, and heavily, heavily, heavily focused Hillary Clinton coverage on fabricated email scandals and hypothetical Clinton Foundation scandals.]

But wait, there’s more. “Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication. Thinking of calling it Pravda …” That was followed by several more thoughts from Chairman Elon. “Even if some of the public doesn’t care about the credibility score, the journalists, editors & publications will. It is how they define themselves. … Not only needs to be botproof, but seek & unmask anyone operating a disinformation bot army.”

Musk than went on to create a Twitter poll on media credibility. Just one day later, it has garnered more than a half million responses. If you want to weigh in on this subject, here’s your chance.

While Musk is annoyed by negative stories, he glosses over the larger point. The digital revolution has upended how people stay informed today. Marshall McLuhan once said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Digital technology is just a tool, one that has brought profound change in its wake. Because it makes two-way communication possible, it has made opinion the arbiter of truth. That is not necessarily a good thing. Like any tool, it can be used for either benevolent or malevolent purposes.

Whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia or not, it is now abundantly clear that organizations like Cambridge Analytica working in concert with social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter can alter elections almost at will. The implications for society are enormous. As some in society strive to promote strategies that will keep humans from destroying the Earth, others are marshaling the power of the internet to increase their own power by several orders of magnitude. As philosopher Jimmy Buffett says, “Power is a dangerous drug. It can maim, it can kill.” Boy howdy.

While Musk has every right to be upset at the brickbats being hurled in his direction, he commits the sin of hubris by making this all about him. The whole climate denier syndrome is made possible by digital media distortions. Elon won’t have any customers to sell cars to if we don’t address that issue first and foremost, unless he intends to make all of those cars submersible, and while Elon may think he needs to feel personally affronted and hit back at attacks on his companies, sometimes it might be wiser to let some lame, inconsequential coverage slip by largely unnoticed by the people who would buy his cars. Attacking the press in broad swaths may in fact do more harm to his brand than some rumors and blatant smear campaigns.

Elon, you could do society a valuable service by addressing the existential issues presented by digital information technology rather than worrying about your own little corner of the universe. That’s not to say your gripes aren’t legitimate. Rather, you have it within your power to do so much more. To whom much is given, much is expected. Is Pravda a genuine solution?

You might also want to bear in mind this insight penned by Finley Peter Dunne, an American writer and humorist, nearly a century ago: “It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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