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24 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:21pm

Elon Musk’s plan for media-rating site Pravda is an exercise in doublespeak

It is time to call out the “Squealer” of Silicon Valley.

By India Bourke

Creator of award-winning cars, seller of solar panels and lover of space travel, American entrepreneur Elon Musk likes to think big. But his latest scheme to save the global media industry is at risk of falling foul of his myopic self-confidence. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Musk tweeted a series of statements criticising the “holier-than-thou hypocrisy” of big media companies, who he says have lost the public’s respect. 

These statements culminated in a pledge to set up his own website, where people can rate the “core truth” and “credibility” of journalists, editors and publications.

Yet the first problem with this new, grand plan is its timing. Musk’s businesses have recently been criticised by Buzzfeed and the non-profit investigative news site Reveal. As Twitter users have been quick to point out, this looks more like a President Trump-style attempt to displace criticism than a bid for the Pulitzer Prize.

In addition, there is something unsettlingly circular about the project’s branding. If the site’s proposed name, Pravda, feels like it has emerged from the realms of George Orwell’s doublethink, that’s because it has. 

The word means “truth” in Russian, and was the title of a newspaper founded by Russian revolutionaries that became a tool of Soviet Union’s ruling communist party. That’s the same paper thought to have provided inspiration for the character of “Squealer” in Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pig responsible for selling the politics of his despotic leader Napoleon to the rest of the farm.

Musk may intend his Pravda to be a clever reference to Russian meddling in American media and elections, but if so, the level of irony involved is just confusing.

Perhaps this in itself is a reference to the “doublethink” and “newspeak” of Orwell’s other novel, 1984, in which political indoctrination can lead to contrary truths being held at the same time. But for anyone familiar with the story’s dystopian world, that can hardly be seen as a reassuring game for Musk to be playing.

It is also unclear what exactly the criteria for rating “credibility” will be: a story’s accuracy? Its utility? Or simply the popularity of its opinions with its readership? 

For Musk to imply that such layers of information can be easily disentangled (his Twitter thread deploys a reductive poll to decide whether or not his idea is “good”), is a disingenuous move from someone who has successfully manipulated the media on many occasions to his own ends.

If Musk is one of the best-known Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it is thanks to his own exploitation of the porous walls between news, advertising and personal brand. The combination of his entrepreneurial success story, tortured soul and Casanova-style dating history is narrative catnip – even to those not primarily interested in cars or space travel.

“If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough” and “I think it’s possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary”, are just two quotes that have helped Musk sell his cars by selling himself.

As an environmentalist, I am grateful for all Musk is doing to shake-up the traditional image of these issues. But I am also wary of absolving such charismatic figures from scepticism. Not least because his projects are in need of criticism: his electric cars and solar roofs may help address climate change, but his SpaceX rocket business releases vast amounts of pollution. 

This isn’t to say that just because new technology has downsides it should be stopped; far from it. But it does mean it should be subject to scrutiny – which much of the media has successfully been doing, without the help of Musk’s ratings vehicle.

If Musk has chosen to enter the realms of doublespeak, perhaps it is time to call out the Squealer-of-Silicon-valley for his own manipulation of the media’s reach.

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