[Note: This post was originally featured on PlanetSave]
A mixture of Trump insiders, Alt-Right supporters, the fossil fuel industry, and climate change doubters have combined forces to create and propagate fake news about Elon Musk with the intent of undermining his influence in the automotive and energy sectors. Attacks on Musk and his companies have intensified since the Electoral College results were announced after the November 8 election and a surprise win by Donald Trump returns the Republican party to the White House.
Florida-based fact-checking outlet PolitiFact found that, of a set of 158 things Mr Trump said during his campaign, 78 per cent were false.
Musk inspires strong admiration for his industry-disrupting companies: Tesla, SolarCity, and Space Exploration Technologies (i.e. SpaceX). Each has been instrumental in fostering a significant shift in the way that consumers think about transportation and energy sources. The fake news attack on him is part of what many people fail to fully acknowledge: echo chambers — spaces in which ideas, information and beliefs are enforced through repetition and outside or opposing views are unable to penetrate — have a way of turning bad information into facts.
Indeed, some of these fake articles have been written by fake persons. An entirely falsified article titled “Elon Musk Continues to Blow Up Taxpayer Money With Falcon 9” was tagged with author, Shepard Stewart. Earlier the same week, Stewart had written “Here’s How Elon Musk Stole $5 Billion in Taxpayer Dollars.”
“Definitely a fake,” says Gavin Wax, editor-in-chief of the Liberty Conservative. That publication took down the article, as did the Libertarian Republic. Only recently did The Federalist site remove authorship information about Stewart from its website.
Sam Jaffe, managing director of Cairn Energy Research Advisors, says there are several reasons that Musk has become a fake news target. One is that whoever is behind the attacks fears Musk could enter U.S. politics. “There’s a portion of the political spectrum that is scared to death of Musk as politician. They see him as a threat. They’re starting that process.”
One anti-Musk website—”Stop Elon From Failing Again” calls itself the “one-stop database on stopping Elon Musk.” With huge images of Musk superimposed behind articles written with very large font, the website uses reverse chronology to capture news aggregated from mainstream sources, conservative think tank diatribes, and its own occasional editorials. For example, a recent post focused on a Morgan Stanley auto analyst who cut his projected Tesla share target prices against a backdrop in which Tesla shares were trading up slightly. Another article described a “deterioration” of Tesla’s market share in Norway, which “should give people reason for pause.”
The website is funded by the Citizens for the Republic (CFTR) political action committee, which describes itself as an organization dedicated to revitalizing the conservative movement through education, grassroots organization, advocacy, and political activism. Diana Banister, a PR executive who serves as CFTR’s executive director, says the site singles out Musk because “he is the epitome of a businessman who gets subsidy after subsidy he doesn’t need.” Laura Ingraham, a right-wing radio host, is National Chairman of the “Stop Elon from Failing Again” website. Her name has been batted around lately as the next possible White House press secretary under President Donald Trump.
The CFTR group fails to mention an article in the New York Times from earlier this year that alleges fossil fuel companies get $4 billion a year in subsidies from the federal government. Nor does it include a reference an International Monetary Fund finding earlier this year that fossil fuel interests receive more than $5 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies from governments around the world each year. When it comes to locating and disassembling wasteful government spending, people tend to overlook benefits that flow to activities they approve of or are paid to promote.
An article on The Daily Signal connected Musk to Bernie Madoff and the “great American financial scandal.” Another website, called “Who is Elon Musk?” attacks Musk for receiving taxpayer subsidies, having a hidden workforce overseas, getting away with financial murder, among many other accusations. The website produced a stream of stories critical of SpaceX and Musk, just as the former was being considered for government contracts.
The fake news campaign against Musk is part of a larger recent picture of Republican trends to falsify facts as a persuasion tool. “False, misleading, clickbait-y and satirical ‘news’ sources” is a publicly available Google Doc, created by Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. According to Zimdars, “The best thing to do in our contemporary media environment is to read/watch/listen widely and often, and to be critical of the sources we share and engage with on social media.”
Most of us get our news from the social media sites very much like those that are targeting Musk. In fact, 62 percent of U.S. adults rely on social media to keep up-to-date on current events, according to a survey by Pew Research Center, with 44 percent mainly using Facebook as their source.
Some have argued that false, outrage-stoking Facebook articles played a role in Trump’s presidential victory. But not everyone is convinced. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has failed to concede that fake news likely influenced the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, arguing that his is a technology rather than media company. Facebook has, however, updated the language in its policy to “explicitly” include fake news sites among those it will not display ads on.
As Bloomberg noted, disrupting the auto and energy industries has made Musk quite a few enemies. In early November, a Tesla lawsuit against an Elon Musk impersonator was challenged in court. Attorneys for Todd Katz, the former CFO of Quest Integrity, which provides services to oil and gas companies ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell, among others, argued that the case against him isn’t viable because his impersonation wasn’t credible. Thus, the implication has become that the target audience of a media message is responsible for ascertaining its authenticity. No longer should the communicator be held accountable. This is unacceptable. Each of us has a moral responsibility to communicate from a position of full veracity; we need to be authentic and as accurate as possible as we share our ideas with the greater society, even if it means that we do not, ultimately, win the argument.
Musk’s response to the fake news stories about him has been directed to seek out the individuals or organizations who are behind the smear campaign. If there is anyone with the resiliency, determination, and wherewithal to locate and eradicate the recent ubiquity of fake news, it is Elon Musk.