[Note: This post was originally featured on Teslarati]
Breitbart News Network featured a story recently on its website called “Elon Musk’s Tesla Stock Up $2 Billion Since Joining Trump’s Team.” The story argues that, as a result of recent Tesla stock increases, Musk owes allegiance to Donald Trump. Attention from the far-right Breitbart website, which is the most viewed U.S. conservative news, opinion, and commentary source in the U.S., comes at a time in which Elon Musk’s reputation has been questioned by his once-loyal following.
Why is the Breitbart story such bad timing for Musk?
Breitbart is known as the most significant misinformation site on the Internet. Privileging one set of representations over another, discourses like those typical within the Breitbart publication tend to claim the status of truth. Their discourses, which work as truth statements, make it difficult for many readers to identify how reality is shaped. Breitbart’s executive chairman, Steve Bannon, aligned the site so specifically toward a Trump vision of the world during the 2016 Presidential election that employees began to raise concerns about it being little more than a “fan club” for Trump.
Moreover, the right-wing outlet has been accused by some as being a hate site. Breitbart engages in coordinated plans to bring their particular brand of intolerance to the political realm in because their style of propaganda works well. Linked to relations of power, the Breitbart stories tend to be constructed and reinforced by those in professional positions like Bannon who hold a particular authority and, thus, create knowledge about certain subjects like climate change, health care, and trade.
In the article about Elon Musk this week, Breitbart referred to individuals who seek equality for all as “the left’s social justice warriors” and described Twitter reactions to Musk’s collaboration with Trump as “vicious colorful language that cannot be reported.” The implication here is that Musk followers are immoral, disreputable people whose language is so coarse that it is would clearly offend the enlightened Breitbart readership.
Yes, this was a week in which the Tesla Motors, Inc. CEO found himself defending his position on Trump’s executive order that limits immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Musk has become a target of malaise due to his role on Trump’s manufacturing council. Disgruntled fans tweeted about how Musk could design a Mars mission but fail to retract a “BS Muslim ban;” what ownership of the competitor’s Chevy Volt would be like; and, his position on AG Sally Yates’ dismissal over the immigration issue. Some tweets, on the other hand, also supported Musk and implored him “to make a positive impact.”
Breitbart recounted that Musk’s attendance on “an official White House committee” (i.e. the Strategic and Policy Forum) on January 27 generated controversy. Breitbart characterized the comments as “mournful,” which cast Musk as leader of a losing battle to limit anthropogenic climate change through decentralized energy, especially the remarkable Tesla electric vehicle line. Breitbart noted Musk’s reply, which included, “It’s getting me down. I’m just trying to make a positive contribution & hope good comes of it.” Interestingly, the publication allowed Musk’s empathy and altruism to shine through the otherwise negative narrative.
Breitbart also added in the article that, “when it comes to U.S. employment and manufacturing, Musk’s companies are near or at the top as the fastest-growing players.” It seems clear from this statement that the Trump administration recognizes the power that Elon Musk has to create U.S. jobs and further the country’s emergence from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Breitbart’s care in recognizing Musk’s wherewithal suggests that the Trump administration is looking down the GNP road and wants to keep Musk close by, regardless of Musk’s opposite political beliefs and progressive values, just in case.
Musk’s use of Twitter to inform, educate, and empower
Twitter can be a site where democracy, messy as it can be, is at its best. Twitter’s multiple viewpoints allow for rich, if sometimes uncomfortable discourse. Musk understands this and engages in conversations with the public as a means of communication, education, and empowerment. For example, he wanted his followers to be intimately knowledgeable with the immigration order and to let him know “specific amendments,” which he would then bring to the advisory council to seek “consensus & present to President” Trump.
Indeed, Musk asked his followers to read “the source material” of the immigration ban; it is a way to infuse voices of reason and expertise rather than emotion and hyperbole into the conversation. That request, in turn, fostered a conversation about the importance of reading original documents and reports, rather than relying on tertiary sources for deconstruction and explanation. It was a lesson that many could have learned during the 2016 Presidential campaign, which was rife with fake news.
Rather than the “Trump / Musk charm offensive” that Breitbart suggests is the reason for Tesla’s rising stock prices, perhaps we should look to the Trump effect as just one of multiple reasons why Tesla is on the rise. The acquisition of Solar/City, the announcement of solar roof tiles, the 2017 production of the new Model 3, production at the Nevada Gigafactory, SpaceX series of successes… the list of recent accomplishments is quite long. Investors like to back a winner, and, even if Musk must hold his nose as he negotiates with Donald Trump and his advisers, the value of Tesla will continue to be robust.
It’s just not the White House that so many of us, Musk included, envisioned just a few months ago. And Breitbart’s entry to the field is scary enough for many of us to take notice. Be strong, Elon; you’re going to need tenacity to stay a step ahead. We know you’ll probably have to step up more than you originally anticipated when you agreed to serve. Thanks for taking on this huge responsibility on behalf of U.S. progressives.