Deconstructing A Tesla Hit Job

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It is a bit hard to believe how the times have changed. Just two years ago, all major news outlets would have jumped at any negative news article related to Tesla. Today is the first time we’ve seen where a very concerning article questioning quality standards and worker conditions in Giga Shanghai has not gone viral in US and European media — it only went viral in China and Tesla might even press charges.

Now, before we get to any specifics or any debunking, I want to take an additional moment to speculate as to why this article has not gone viral in Western media. First of all, short positions on Tesla stock are basically at an all-time low. A lot of critics have moved on from Tesla or have become bulls, because Tesla’s financial balance sheet has become rock solid — if not even aluminum diecast. Yet, there may be two more factors that may be contributing, and they are both related to the media.

The first is that it seems journalists have noticed how they were wrong for years about Tesla, and might be more skeptical now about Tesla rumors and hit pieces. The second is that not a single Western media company has toured Giga Shanghai. There is a genuine lack of information here. There are by now hundreds of amateur drone flyover videos documenting how the factory was built and continues to expand, but other than a few images that have leaked out, a few images Tesla placed in a quarterly earnings report, and one promotional video Tesla China posted on social media, we know very little about what goes on inside Giga Shanghai or what it looks like.

Historical Hit-Job Article, Exhibit A

This one was originally published by Reveal and was then covered by many other news sites, from New York Magazine to Engadget. Was any of it true? Absolutely not. We at CleanTechnica know for sure, as I personally, along with team members Zachary Shahan and Kyle Field, toured the Fremont factory. If it was not for that tour, I might have some doubts about what goes on in a Tesla factory. But being there in person, there was no question that things inside the factory looked much different than articles like that one from Reveal claimed and insinuated.

Historical Hit-Job Article, Exhibit B

Next up is the article “Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk: Life Inside Tesla’s Production Hell,” written by Charles Duhigg and published by news outlet WIRED. Notably, and interestingly, it is the only article this author has ever written for WIRED. This is not just another negative article that has gone viral. Most of the contents of this article can’t be debunked even today, but for some specific reasons that I will get to later on. One thing is for sure — it is the most professional hit-job article I have ever seen. I can’t help but admire the writing quality, the thoroughness, and how much fear, uncertainty, and doubt this article evokes from its readers. This is not “Joe’s Daily Blog” — that much is clear. Naturally, that makes people trust it more.

Deconstructing Such Hit-Job Articles

First and foremost, you need to find disgruntled workers who are no longer with the company. Every company has them. There is an important human flaw that contributes to this — people don’t like to admit their mistakes, their wrongdoing, or even not understanding their mistakes. Then there will be people who have been fired for unclear reasons, leading to speculation that has gotten them to the wrong conclusions. If you are lucky, you might even find a person who was fired unfairly, an oversight from either the manager, from human resources, or both. All one must do is interview people who used to work at the company and then “accidentally” use the interviews that speak well of their former employer as fireplace kindling. In the case of Tesla, the company has had tens of thousands of employees, if not 100,000+ across time. It’s basically impossible that a reporter would not be able to find disgruntled former employees.

However, the real basis of one of these articles comes from gathering any real and factual, preferably negative, information that is out there. Some examples: 

  • Historically, Elon Musk was pretty easy to provoke on social media (less so now).
  • The policies he has instituted in his companies are indeed quite unorthodox. (It’s a good thing that can be taken as a negative.)
  • Elon has admitted to firing people who have told him they can’t do something rather than just try and fail. (Part of those unorthodox yet ever so successful policies.)
  • Elon Musk is very often on the production floor, as he is more a chief engineer than a high-tower CEO. (No alibi — he interacts with a lot of people.)
  • In the past, Elon Musk has made some rash decisions or communicated rashly (going private at $420 and calling Wall Street analysts’ questions “boneheaded” questions, for example).
  • In the past, Tesla has had production quality issues.
  • The company always tries to push itself to the limit at the end of a quarter to reach production and delivery goals (a good thing that could have negative aspects).
  • Employee turnover in companies like Tesla and Google is pretty high since it’s really hard work but also results in cutting-edge technology and a slick resume for moving onto new challenges of companies.
  • A lack of media transparency. This is something that has always been the case in Giga Shanghai, and even in general worldwide for many years. Tesla PR often did not respond to media inquiries, and now that the PR team has been disbanded, it never replies. (We still have Battery Day questions we can’t ask the company.) So, who is going to debunk false claims?

Sometimes it can even be stereotypically negative stuff but not necessarily applicable to the targeted company.

  • CEOs often do have a blindspot for stuff that happens inappropriately in their companies.
  • Bosses like to yell.
  • In China, a lot of workers are not treated well.

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Putting the Hit-Job Article Together

It’s important to understand that truth comes in shades of grey. Any and all of the above negative things can be twisted, exaggerated, and made to look like a darker shade on the spectrum. Firing people because the company is running out of money can be demonized all you want, but at some point it’s all just normal business practices.

The better the quality of the writing and the more aspects of the company such an article covers, the more believable the claims become — especially if the negative stuff is blanketed in neutral information and a few positive things sprinkled about every now and then. 

Trying to recognize a hit-job article is an art, as much as it is to write one and make it believable. Though, the bar for “believable” has been going down in the past few years as search algorithms have led people down some pretty crazy rabbit holes and placed them in misinformation bubbles. Sometimes it feels like Elon’s idea of Pravduh, a tool to filter truth from fiction using AI, might have been one of his best ideas ever. If only he would actually invest in it. I do see how it could work as a semi-automatic fact-referencing website plug-in. But that is another subject entirely.

So, why can some of these articles not be debunked even years later? Because a lot of it was never proven to be true in the first place. The burden of proof falls on the debunking, and after such intense information warfare over the last few years, even facts have lost their power of persuasion over people. An article that doesn’t question the validity of its information or provide sources or mostly uses anonymous sources should really be seen as a red warning light. Should such articles be believed? Not without proof. Should the claims in the articles be investigated? Absolutely. Should a company actively debunk bad information? If it serves them well, which it often would.

Could parts of these articles be true? For sure. But trying to figure out which parts could drive a person mad.

So, What Did This “Pingwest” Chinese Article Claim?

The only part that is believable is that the lowest rank of employees since May 2020 no longer gets stock options (which is probably because the stock has gone up so much). Here are the rest of the claims:

  • All other employee benefits are practically gone.
  • All the good-quality food has been changed to instant noodles and then to bread that is sometimes already moldy.
  • Tesla uses faulty components in the factory and then secretly fixes them when the car is in the service center (for any other reason).
  • Tesla reduced the final vehicle check from 80 points to 60 points. (Elon has previously said that changes in production have made some of those points redundant.)
  • That Giga shanghai is very manual and doesn’t have tons of the big robots seen in other Tesla factories. (As was mentioned previously, the fact that Tesla hasn’t given any tours of the place to media doesn’t help here)
  • The factory puts out 3x the amount of sewage and has thus lowered environmental standards to not conform with environmental standards. (This is finally something that can be verified and should be verified, it is also something that could be true because the factory keeps increasing in size).
  • Outsourcing and contracting companies no longer recommend people to work at Tesla.
  • Big problems with a vehicle on the manufacturing line does not result in the line being halted. In their example, it was either a missing or an opened window.
  • The second half of the article focused on Tesla’s head of China, Tom Zhu, claiming that he yells at a lot of people for no good reason but to vent. The article claims that he basically grabbed power in the company, is focused on production numbers, is not concerned with worker conditions, and has clamped down on communication channels. According to the article, he flies to see Elon Musk personally once every two weeks and just says all the things needed to please Elon. 
  • Finally, the article basically presented Tesla China as an autonomous subsidiary placed behind a wall. Any warning signs that do reach people outside of China through holes in the wall are left unanswered because those people are not in a position to do anything about it. And that hole in the wall is then patched.

When all of it is summarized in a bullet point list without the finesse, it really does become apparent that most of it not likely to be true. But is any of it true? One or two things might have a bit of truth to them, probably in a much less exaggerated way. As mentioned before, there will always be disgruntled employees ready to complain, and it really is hard but worthwhile work, something that is normal for any manufacturing industry. Most of it, however, I would not put much stock into. If Tesla invited us to tour the Shanghai factory, we would gladly debunk as much of it as we could.

There is one clear takeaway we still have from touring the Fremont factory: seemingly everyone working there on the manufacturing lines was excited by the fact that they were making history, working for a mission that will help mankind, and, when it comes to the climate, maybe even help save it.

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Chanan Bos

Chanan grew up in a multicultural, multi-lingual environment that often gives him a unique perspective on a variety of topics. He is always in thought about big picture topics like AI, quantum physics, philosophy, Universal Basic Income, climate change, sci-fi concepts like the singularity, misinformation, and the list goes on. Currently, he is studying creative media & technology but already has diplomas in environmental sciences as well as business & management. His goal is to discourage linear thinking, bias, and confirmation bias whilst encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and helping people understand exponential progress. Chanan is very worried about his future and the future of humanity. That is why he has a tremendous admiration for Elon Musk and his companies, foremost because of their missions, philosophy, and intent to help humanity and its future.

Chanan Bos has 118 posts and counting. See all posts by Chanan Bos