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24 May 2018updated 01 Jul 2021 5:35am

Elon Musk’s attack on the media embodies the attitudes of the new Silicon Valley aristocracy

To any elite, the grubby attention of nosey hacks is unwelcome. 

By Mic Wright

Aristocracies are rarely fans of the media. To any elite, the grubby attention of nosey hacks is unwelcome. Silicon Valley’s new aristocrats — CEOs and venture capitalists with an almost universal dislike of regulation and scrutiny — are especially allergic to critical press attention. 

While he’s yet to descend to the level of the Trump-backing venture capitalist, Peter Thiel, who used his money and muscle to bankroll the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that killed US website Gawker, Elon Musk is also no fan of the press. Stories about working conditions at his electric car company, Tesla, and Musk’s own distaste for labour unions, have repeatedly provoked social media clap backs. 

The recent revelation that Musk is in a relationship with the musician Grimes has led to an increased focus on the South African-born billionaire. Perhaps in response to this intensified media attention, Musk has continued his habit of announcing wild new company ideas via Twitter (including a satire website and a candy company) with news of a fact-checking project that he is calling Pravda. 

It might seem odd to name a company questing for truth after the former official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, particularly while the sitting president of the United States remains embroiled in a scandal about Russian influence, but it’s very on brand for Musk. Despite his wealth, hundreds of thousands of words in praise of his genius published by numerous outlets, and an army of adoring acolytes, the Tesla founder still tweets by turns like an over-caffeinated teen and an irritable 4Chan meme lord. Remember, this is the man who promoted his tunnel-drilling firm (The Boring Company) by selling flamethrowers. 

Musk described his Pravda — for which he’s at least registered incorporation papers — as “a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article and track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor and publication.” The series of tweets revealing the idea came directly after he had tweeted an article suggesting that Tesla shares will rally as “media negativity becomes increasingly immaterial.” Musk says his site would detect botnets and other attempts to distort its ratings. He seems to have entirely ignored numerous other organisations and startups working in the same area. 

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At the time of writing, Musk is outright trolling the media with a Twitter poll, challenging outlets to get their readers to vote against his idea, while noting that his 21.8 million Twitter followers are voting for it: “Come on media, you can do it! Get more people to vote for you. You are literally the media.” 

If this attitude — the media as villain — seems familiar, it’s not just from Donald Trump’s speeches. Silicon Valley has treated any journalist or outlet that isn’t puppy dog compliant, willing to cheer and clap at its brilliance, as the enemy for years. Uber and the now disgraced blood testing startup Theranos are two more obvious examples. 

While Uber is now under new management, with a fresh CEO charged with getting its reputation cleaned up, under its former leader Travis Kalanick, the company actively targeted journalists. Its former senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, suggested creating a $1m opposition research programme to dig up dirt about reporters if they crossed the company.

In the case of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs-mimicking founder and CEO, benefitted from glowing press coverage of her company’s apparent breakthroughs but quickly became combative when things started to unravel. John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story of how Theranos lied to the public, patients, doctors, regulators and its own investors, claims he was even placed under direct surveillance by the company. 

Certainly, Holmes tried to persuade Rupert Murdoch, the Wall Street Journal’s owner, to kill Carreyrou’s stories after the media tycoon pumped $125m into Theranos in 2015. Carreyrou writes in Bad Blood, his book on the scandal, that Holmes claimed “the information I had gathered was false and would do great damage to Theranos if it was published. Murdoch [said] he trusted the paper’s editors to handle the matter fairly.” 

Not all Theranos investors were so even-handed, even after multiple lawsuits and a series of utterly damning reports from Carreyrou. Tim Draper of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson told Bloomberg that the criticism was “[the same as] the way Uber was attacked by taxi drivers, and Bitcoin was attacked by the banks… I hope eventually whoever is pulling the wires for the guy at The Wall Street Journal — I hope they finally cut his wires.” 

Musk’s notion of rating the truth of articles isn’t too far from Draper’s desperate desire for Carreyrou’s wires to be cut. Pravda or You’re Right (as Musk has also suggested he might call his site) would simply become a means for Musk, with the willing assistance of his millions of fans, to exorcise his demons about the media. Silicon Valley swore blind that there was no truth in Carreyrou’s reporting about Holmes and Theranos, but there was. Peter Thiel shot down Gawker because it wrote about his sexuality. Uber planned to target reporters because they kept getting in the way of its rapacious desire for growth. 

Elon Musk does not like reporters focusing on Tesla’s working practices and his ongoing distaste for organised labour — last week he tweeted that there is “nothing stopping the Tesla team at our car part from voting union… but why pay union dues and give up stock options for nothing?” Tesla workers have been publicly rallying to unionise for over a year. A Guardian investigation documented reports of fainting, dizziness and seizures at Tesla’s factories. Workers filed a complaint against the company with the US National Labour Relations Board last year about reprimands for handing out union literature. 

That’s not a set of truths that Elon Musk likes to hear. So would this article be down voted on his new platform for truth and journalistic justice? I rather suspect it would. Silicon Valley’s philosopher kings like to believe they can disrupt everything — but the truth isn’t up for grabs, no matter how much money they throw at it. 

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