The era of wheeling and dealing on Twitter

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Don’t Drink And Write

THANKS to accessible social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, information dissemination has been democratized. What this has done is basically cut the middleman (or traditional media, to be exact). In the past, if people wished to announce anything to the world, they had to go to a radio or TV station and then beg said station to let them go on air for one minute to make their statement (which was usually about a missing relative or a stolen vehicle). Today, anyone — and that literally means anyone (even a jobless freeloader who happens to have a smart phone) — can fire off a similar message online and the message may then be read by folks even halfway across the globe. For free.

Brands, too, are now able to reach their customers without having to pay big advertising money to glossy magazines and old-school newspapers. If they have a huge following on social media, they can simply tweet or post their latest product or promo and their target market will be promptly notified.

Well and good. Hurray for free speech and open communication. Unfortunately, this kind of freedom has also given way to a lot of falsity in practically every aspect of our society — particularly politics and business. If you ever need proof, all you have to do is check out the state of affairs in America, supposedly the most powerful nation on the planet. The country has a sitting president who tweeted his way to the White House, and still tweets his thoughts to his supporters whenever he feels like doing so. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, 90% (possibly more) of what this guy says is either erroneous or misleading. And therein lies the problem: Social media removed the filter (also known as the editor, the proofreader, the fact-checker). Uneducated, gullible and stupid individuals — and there are millions of them, it turns out — are unwitting victims of the carefully manufactured lies that make it to their news feed.

I discuss this because I’m now beginning to wonder if the automotive industry isn’t in a similar boat with the likes of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who, like Donald Trump, enjoys sharing his brain farts with his 22.4 million followers on Twitter. In 280 or fewer characters, he reveals plans and ideas about his business concerns, including his electric-car company. And this has now gotten him into trouble, legal or otherwise.

On Aug. 7, the controversial businessman tweeted about his desire to take the publicly held Tesla private at $420 a share. “Funding secured,” he added. With that single tweet, the automaker’s shares went through the roof. And so did the astonishment of the firm’s investors, who apparently had no clue as to what Musk was talking about. The posting was so unexpected that there were even speculations afterward that the Tesla boss had been smoking weed when he composed the message (‘420’ is a code for cannabis).

After Musk had moved and rocked the market with his weird tweet, it would later become clear that no such funding had been secured for Tesla’s $72-billion privatization, resulting in investors filing lawsuits and the US Securities and Exchange Commission launching an investigation. On Friday, Aug. 24, the executive disclosed he was no longer pursuing the idea of taking Tesla private. Just as the company’s shares had soared after his Aug. 7 tweet, the same took a dive upon the published reversal of Musk’s intent.

What was Musk thinking? Did he really have tangible support for his Tesla privatization plan? Or was he merely attempting to artificially inflate the company’s value to lure more investors? Musk, it should be noted, has been accused by some quarters as a scammer who runs a pyramid scheme (by attracting new investors just to compensate existing ones). With the way Tesla has missed production deadlines and failed to turn profit for years, the imputation is getting harder and harder to ignore.

In November last year, Musk claimed to have in the Tesla pipeline a 10,000-Nm electric roadster that was bound to be the world’s quickest car, citing incredible performance figures to wow the motoring community (including a 0-to-100 kph time of 1.9 seconds). He also bragged about an electric truck that could accelerate from rest to 100 kph in five seconds, and then travel 800 kilometers on just a single charge. In both cases, he offered no evidence other than his confident words and some audiovisual presentation. Automotive media outlets fell for it hook, line and sinker. Largely because they have this romantic image of Elon Musk as a real-life Tony Stark.

But is he Tony Stark or just the car industry’s version of Donald Trump? Someone who takes to Twitter to make people believe what he wants them to believe about his underachieving EV company and its prospects — truth be damned. What happens to Tesla in the coming months should provide the answer.