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Why Elon Musk’s journalist-ranking website is a terrible idea

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The Tesla CEO went on an unhinged Twitter tirade.

Elon Musk took a break from fixing Model 3 production problems and shooting rockets into space to go on a long-winded Twitter tirade condemning the media and threatening to create a crowdsourced website that ranks the credibility of journalists, editors, and publications. Given his track record for bad ideas come true, we don’t doubt that he’s serious about this one.

“Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication,” Musk wrote. 

If you’re worried about today’s media, and, you’re not alone if you do, his idea may sound like a potential solution to awful clickbait articles and bias fake news. But like handing out flamethrowers to anyone who wants one, this childish attack on journalists is shortsighted and lacks a fundamental understanding of the profession.

Musk began his unhinged onslaught by hitting out at the “hypocrisy of big media.”

The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them,” he wrote in a tweet.

Oddly, he goes on to suggest naming the site Pravda, or the Russian word for “truth” and the official newspaper of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. His trolling also appears to have links to a book by controversial activist James O’Keefe, called “American Pravda,” a product of the conservative media outlet Project Veritas. Musk later suggests naming the website “You’re Right!” using the youreright.com domain, which he already owns.

His frustrations stem from recent articles criticizing Tesla, including a damning report from Reveal, the face of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the country’s first non-profit investigative journalism organization. In it, Reveal, citing numerous sources throughout, alleges unsafe working conditions at Tesla factories. Musk appears to have taken the report as a personal attack on the company. His aggressive PR team even published a lengthy statement baselessly calling the article an “ideologically motivated attack.”

News flash: that’s not how journalism works. Yes, there are bad apples, and at times, even the most reliable reporters will make mistakes, but no one is more critical of journalists than their peers. Reporters are quick to call out misleading articles or clickbait headlines by writing articles that debunk those claims and even locking horns on social media. Ultimately, the goal of a journalist is to engage with readers, and the way we do that—the way we’re trained to—is by publishing facts backed by reporting. It’s not easy, but it’s part of the DNA of every reputable journalist who chooses to work long, stressful hours in a historically low-income profession. 

Most importantly, journalists must remain independent of the subject they’re covering. Publications rely on advertising for revenue—it’s been that way for hundreds of years—but Musk’s suggestions that journalists are being intentionally untruthful is unfounded, and would, perhaps ironically, constitute as “fake news.” Additionally, Musk’s claims that traditional companies, including competing automakers, don’t receive the same sort of criticisms, are simply off base

As his rant went on, Musk did little to prove his understanding of the profession. Here’s a particularly head-scratching passage:

“Even if some of the public doesn’t care about the credibility score, the journalists, editors & publications will. It is how they define themselves.” If journalists are so invested in their credibility, then what exactly is it Musk is complaining about and how will his proposed site change anything?

Musk also gave his take on what he believes to be journalism: a cesspool that rates people on behalf of the public “for which they have contempt.” Yes, journalists have opinions, but those are separate from facts gathered for reported articles. Even in today’s fast-paced online environment, journalism, at its core, is about fact-checking, sourcing, and good judgment. Whether outlets are rewarded for those efforts remains a serious concern.

It’s one of many reasons Pravda or You’re Right! or whatever Musk calls the site, won’t much value to readers. Take this January survey conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation that found two in five Republicans believe the definition for “fake news” should be expanded to include articles that paint leaders or groups in a negative light, even if the reports are accurate. Confirmation bias is a powerful and destructive tendency, and now Musk is asking that same group of people to be the arbiters of truth.

Which brings us to a critical problem in today’s society: a significant portion of the general public is incapable of identifying fake news from genuine reporting, and keeping their ideologies from interfering with that important judgment. 

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The “Yelp effect,” or the inclination of people to only rate products or services if they have a negative experience with them, is another reason that this type of website would fail. Airlines are a great example. If you’ve ever flown with top airlines, you might have been amazed by their service. But how often did you go online to write a glowing review? You’re more likely to have written a review after a negative experience with an airline as a way of getting back at it. A website that rates news outlets will likely have the same outcome.

And then there are the bots and trolls, which could be used to sway public opinion. Musk is aware of that problem and wrote, “not only needs to be bot proof, but seek & unmask anyone operating a disinformation bot army.” That’s easier said than done. If Musk can solve an issue Twitter, Facebook, and Google have struggled with for years, he’ll be fielding applications from just about every social media firm.

In the end, Musk’s idealistic but misguided website could come back to haunt him. As he likes to point out, Tesla doesn’t rely on advertising. It markets with buzz, which depends heavily on media coverage. Despite receiving overwhelmingly positive coverage, Tesla has proven time and again that it’s combative when faced with even the slightest criticism. Instead, it has launched media campaigns against established outlets, disparaging and even threatening them.

For example, Tesla called Reveal an “extremist organization”, and Musk even suggested journalists who wrote negative coverage about autonomous vehicles were “killing people.” As if journalists, who are oft criticized as being unfairly left-leaning, have some sort of vendetta against a company trying to put an end to fossil fuels. In fact, for every bad piece of coverage Tesla receives, its products and values are overwhelming heralded by news outlets on both sides of the political spectrum.

If, as Musk says, “no one believes the media,” maybe he shouldn’t be so worried about it and get back to fixing some of Tesla’s problems, problems journalists are rightfully reporting, much to his dismay. 

Phillip Tracy

Phillip Tracy

Phillip Tracy is a former technology staff writer at the Daily Dot. He's an expert on smartphones, social media trends, and gadgets. He previously reported on IoT and telecom for RCR Wireless News and contributed to NewBay Media magazine. He now writes for Laptop magazine.