What planet does Elon Musk live on?
Over the past month, the "real-life Iron Man" has, tweet-by-tweet, constructed a picture of reality that increasingly looks less like the world most of us interact with every day. He's actually a socialist, he claimed on Twitter recently, although he believes corporations should provide for most of society's needs and doesn't think his Tesla factory should unionize. Later that same day, Musk claimed to be a "utopian anarchist" a la the futuristic civilization depicted in science fiction writer Iain M. Banks' Culture series. This view seems to ignore the fact that in a 1994 essay titled "A Few Notes on the Culture," Banks himself laid out a "personal conviction" that "a planned economy can be more productive—and more morally desirable—than one left to market forces." This socialist outlook doesn't jibe with the worldview Musk has espoused in his recent tweets.
But then again, Musk has always preferred to eschew the present and the realities of the down-and-dirty politics of average people in favour of a fantastical future mostly of his own imagining.
"The Iraq war, the presidential election, and the debt crisis dominate today's headlines, but will amount to little more than a footnote in the long-term annals of history," Musk wrote in a 2008 note for Esquire. Perhaps the War on Terror and the 2008 debt crisis were blips on Musk's radar, but they indelibly stamped the lives of millions of people, and their effects will persist for generations.
There are less obvious, for some, distortions of reality in Musk's fortitudinous orbit. On May 26, Musk tweeted that "[the] Singapore [government] is not supportive of electric vehicles." It's true that Tesla, specifically, has had trouble getting its luxury cars into Singapore, but the whole picture is more nuanced. Buyers of all-electric vehicles in Singapore can expect a $20,000 government rebate under new rules, and a company called BlueSG operates an electric vehicle car-sharing service (partnered with the government) that aims to have 1,000 vehicles and 2,000 charging points on the road by 2020.
One more example: When Musk tried to buy the domain name Pravda.com for a planned website that would allow readers to rate journalists and editors on their truthfulness, he seemed completely unaware that Ukrayinska Pravda, which already owns that URL, is in fact a Ukrainian news organization. Ukrayinska Pravda's co-founder, Georgiy Gongadze, was a dissident journalist in Ukraine before he was kidnapped and beheaded in 2000; a former Ukrainian security official, General Olexey Pukach, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder in 2013. Another Ukrayinska Pravda journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was killed with a car bomb in 2016. Sheremet was the recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalist's International Press Freedom Award in 1998.
Reading Elon Musk's Twitter feed is to take a step into a reality he is forging by the minute; one that suits him. This reality distortion field is his superpower, to match the Iron Man superhero mythos that surrounds him. He has employed this power often in the past, although for less confrontational ends. Musk has risen to popularity on a tide of utopian visions—from colonizing Mars (using his company's rockets) to tunneling under Los Angeles (using his company's machines) to alleviate "soul crushing" traffic. These visions are aspirational in nature, and he's convinced many that he can pull them off.
The origin of Musk's superpower doesn't have anything to do with radiation or falling into a vat of chemicals. Simply, Elon Musk can forge his own reality, even one that encompasses the rest of us, because he directs a vast amount of private capital. While most of us have little or no capital to speak of, and are beholden to the decisions (and mistakes) made by large public institutions and their symptoms—like gridlock—Musk can push through all of this with the sheer force of having a load of money to throw at whatever he wants. Elon Musk is so popular in part because of his ability to change reality around him.
Where average people might see making rent this month as being impossible—forget colonizing Mars or getting off fossil fuels—Musk builds rockets and electric sports cars and sends them to space.
Musk's recent comments are just the latest use of his superpower: reality distortion, made possible by his immense stature in the public eye thanks to the huge amounts of capital he can allocate to the utopian-sounding projects that have made him a media darling—hence the Iron Man comparison. Musk has long used this power to sell visions of an intergalactic humanity, but now it's being used to shore up his business interests. And in the realm of political philosophy, inasmuch as it is a social contest versus debates over what is scientifically possible with rockets, his reality-bending superpower is all the more effective. He's a real American superhero.
But why leverage this immense power to discredit the news media, and socialism, and unions, now? It's worth noting that Musk's rant against the media in May began in earnest when Reveal reported on working conditions at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California. Musk's factory is also in the midst of a union drive (Musk insists his employees don't want to unionize) and is facing several National Labor Review Board complaints for allegedly unfair labour practices. In his latest tweets decrying socialism while claiming to be a socialist or an anarchist or whatever, Musk has also made time to slam an auto industry trade union.
According to Florian Zollman, a lecturer in journalism at Newcastle University and author of Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention , industry has a long history of throwing "flak" at critical newsmedia that gives a voice to ordinary people.
"In the past, obviously before the digital era, this might have been writing a letter to the media to complain, or a phone call to the media by powerful people—it could be someone from the government, or someone from a company, or a think tank—to give them negative feedback," Zollman told me over the phone. "This is difficult to research, but researchers assume this is being conducted to put pressure on the media."
For all of Musk's pretensions of innovation, in his anti-media stance he is drawing on a long history of American industry pushing back against the media when its business interests are threatened; it's right out of a well-read playbook.
In the midst of the 1970s oil crisis—while the American economy was struggling and yet oil companies were making huge profits—the public, the media, and politicians were all becoming increasingly critical of corporate interests.
Mobil Oil, in particular, felt that media reporting on the issue was unfairly biased against the industry. In response, the company launched a campaign "designed to build a benevolent, authoritative image and insulate the company from its critics," according to a 2010 research paper published in American Journalism by Vanessa Murphree and James Aucoin. The campaign involved taking out ad space and filling it with anti-media editorials that often took aim at specific news articles. The focus "was the media's inability to properly cover the energy crisis and the oil industry, at least from Mobil's perspective," according to Murphree and Aucoin.
Sound familiar? There are big difference between Musk and Mobil Oil in the 70s—not least that Musk seems to despise oil companies—the most important being that public opinion is stacked in his favour. People listened to him when he said that he could get humanity to Mars through the power of the market, and they are listening to him now when he says that socialism is only for rich kids and that unions are bad.
It's not without reason that Musk's following is often described as being cult-like. Even while Tesla is in the midst of laying off thousands of workers and the shop floor is organizing, some fired workers tweeted to say that they are still believers in Tesla and Musk.
"CEOs have always taken advantage of their access to media and audiences to undermine organizing efforts by workers at their companies with anti-union messages; Musk is no different," Enda Brophy, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University's school of communication, wrote me in an email. "What has changed is the media environment, where tirades of the sort are instantly shared with what in his case are millions of followers."
Musk acolytes have become a terror all on their own online, with some of them trolling and harrassing people—mainly, women—who speak out against Musk. One researcher I spoke to for this piece asked not to be quoted after it became clear that she might be targeted by Musk's fans for criticizing him.
Read More: The Church of Elon Musk Is Open for Business
Elon Musk is right, of course, to point out that corporate advertisers may exert some influence (directly or indirectly) on media coverage—although the implication that this has resulted in negative coverage of Tesla is dubious. Nevertheless, the influence of advertiser dollars in media is exactly why ad boycotts are so effective. This is an uncontroversial point for many critical and progressive researchers who have argued similarly for decades. But, Zollman pointed out over the phone, not all media critiques are equal.
As the example of Mobil Oil in the 1970s shows, industry is perfectly happy to use the language of "keeping the media accountable" when it suits its interests, which may not line up with the public interest.
"My advice for the public might be that you should be critical of any statement published in the public domain—and the same criticism you might bring to the media, you should bring to other people," Zollman told me. "If someone is critical of the media, you can consider the background of that person. Is it just about someone who is not happy with a particular discourse reflecting on their own activities, or is it a more justified criticism about the media in terms of how it should operate in the public interest?"
The playing field isn't level when it comes to Musk's dubious pronouncements—he has a bigger microphone, more money, more of pretty much everything that normal people can imagine for themselves. This is his superpower, but we have power, too. We walk this Earth and feel the pebbles in our shoes; we know where the potholes are on our commutes to jobs that we've got to work every day or else. Or else what? We know, all too well. Elon Musk does not. That's his Kryptonite.
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