Tesla: Russia’s Top Propaganda Target

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By Stephen Beaton

If you were to search for a typical article about Tesla in the media outlet RT (formerly called Russia Today, and Russia’s most prominent international information/propaganda outlet), it is likely that you would come away with the impression that Tesla is a company led by an incompetent CEO producing pathetic, highly dangerous, and unpopular cars.

While many media outlets throughout the world tout the latest conceptual electric car as a “Tesla killer,” RT takes the anti-Tesla press a step further. Typical headlines on RT about Tesla range from “Safety third: Tesla spontaneously combusts — twice” to “Tesla gets slap on the wrist from US environmental agency over hazardous waste violations.” And if you need a bit of schadenfreude as a pick-me-up, you can check out the article “Elon Musk’s five famous fails & freakouts in the year past.”

RT’s fascination with Tesla is in stark contrast to Tesla’s sparse presence near RT’s headquarters in Russia. Due in part to adverse governmental policy, fewer Tesla cars are sold in Russia than in Luxembourg and there are currently no Tesla Superchargers open in all of Russia. While many governments throughout Western Europe and the USA see supporting Tesla solely as a climate change issue that sometimes provokes the typical partisan response, Russia sees Tesla as a serious threat with an intensity that is revealed by the depth of RT’s misinformation campaign.

Stephen Beaton

In the past year, RT has published 116 articles that mentioned Tesla or Elon Musk. Over 75% of those articles published by RT were negative, while less than 10% of those articles were positive (approximately 15% were neither positive nor negative). The negative articles typically focused on three main themes: (1) Tesla as a company will fail, (2) Tesla cars are dangerous and unreliable, and (3) Elon Musk is crazy. Like any startup, Tesla has experienced various hurdles in its quest to bring electric vehicles (EVs) to mass market. Thus, the articles on RT are not necessarily false. For the most part, they highlight true challenges the company has faced or missteps that its CEO Elon Musk has taken. But just like the Russian show-trials of old, the RT articles tell a one-sided story, cherry-picking snapshots to create a false narrative. By highlighting the challenges and neglecting the triumphs, RT appears to be on a concerted campaign to undermine Tesla.

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For example, the article entitled “Favorite mistake: Sheryl Crow asks Twitter to help when her Tesla won’t start, but gets puns instead” emphasizes the far-from-headline-worthy fact that on one morning Sheryl Crow’s Tesla did not start. It goes without saying that thousands of Americans encountered a gasoline-powered car that did not start on that very same day and that the vast majority of over a half-million Tesla owners started their cars multiple times that day without incident. However, the article’s purpose is to exaggerate to its readers the supposed unreliability of Tesla cars.

Even the rare positive articles (less than 10%) are only modestly net positive. In the 1,083 characters of the article entitled “Bringing sexy back: Elon Musk unveils Tesla’s 2nd electric SUV Model Y,” only 639 characters report on the reveal of the Model Y. The remaining 444 characters highlight the “hard times” Tesla is going through, which included an SEC investigation, the death of a Tesla owner in a car crash, and the departure of Tesla executives. The majority of articles that mention Tesla or Elon Musk in a way that is not negative (15% of the articles) are also not positive, but rather indifferent. These articles report on instances when Elon Musk has weighed in on the dangers of artificial intelligence, the excellence of Russian engineering, or the humor of Russian memes.

The more interesting question provoked by this analysis is what drives the anti-Tesla bias at RT. Perhaps this anti-Tesla slant is borne of a fear that Tesla will successfully combat the world’s addiction to Russia’s top export and most important revenue source: hydrocarbons (oil & gas).

However, other news sources funded by hydrocarbon-rich states are not nearly as obsessed by Tesla or pessimistic about its future. Al-Jazeera (Qatar) and Telesur (Venezuela) published 17 articles and 2 articles in the past year on Tesla, respectively, and only approximately half of the articles that each news source published highlighted negative aspects of Tesla’s performance. Perhaps, a general opposition to the success of a technology company headquartered in Russia’s primary geopolitical foe also drives Russia’s anti-Tesla campaign. And yet the country frequently cited as America’s primary geopolitical foe, China, has facilitated the ongoing construction of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Shanghai, demonstrating a willingness to help Tesla grow.

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Although one can only speculate on the full explanation for RT’s anti-Tesla bias, the goal is very clear: to hamper Tesla’s growth.

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