Elon Musk never ceases to amaze – and I’m not talking about his technology brilliance. Yes, I get it, he’s way smarter than me and deserves admiration and respect for his many accomplishments. Without Elon Musk, electric vehicles might have forever remained an elusive pipedream. His SpaceX venture is the stuff of science fiction.
But Musk’s brilliance shouldn’t give him a license to spew out BS without accountability, particularly on a critical matter like free speech. That’s a subject Musk talks out of both sides of his mouth.
Musk this weekend said he declined to heed calls from several countries to block Russian news sites from his Starlink internet satellites amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Starlink has been told by some governments (not) Ukraine to block Russian news sources,” Musk tweeted. “We will not do so unless at gunpoint. Sorry to be a free speech absolutist.”
Musk talks a good game about his commitment to free speech even for Putin’s despotic regime, but in China, a country for whose leadership he has nothing but high praise, he sings from a different hymn book.
In a story that didn’t receive the attention and pickup it deserved, Bloomberg BusinessWeek on December 15 reported that Tesla lobbied China to use the Communist government’s censorship powers to silence critics on Chinese social media who question the safety of the company’s cars. That’s right, a U.S.-based company wanted Communist government censorship of its critics.
China, which has granted Musk favored status to build his cars there, appears to have denied Tesla’s request. The company’s Plan B is to bury and silence Chinese critics in American-style litigation.
Bloomberg also reported that Tesla’s in-house lawyers have threatened to sue social media personalities who publish critical concerns about the safety of the company’s cars. Bloomberg said it obtained screenshots of message warnings from “Tesla Legal” sent to social media personalities who’ve posted complaints about the company’s cars. Bloomberg said the messages demand removal of the “fabricated content” and warned of “further legal action” if the posters failed to comply. Some of the threats were received by bloggers who merely recirculated content posted by others.
Tesla has filed defamation claims against at least two Chinese citizens who raised safety concerns about the company’s cars, Bloomberg reported.
Zhang Xiaoling, a Beijing attorney specializing in consumer issues, told Bloomberg that in China it’s “really rare” for companies to sue their customers. “Tesla is using litigation to dampen confidence of individual consumers in safeguarding their rights and, therefore, to forestall actions from other customers.”
So much for Musk being a “free speech absolutist.”
Musk also has been silent about his beloved China allegedly hacking into the Wall Street Journal’s computer system, gaining access to emails and documents of the publication’s reporters going as far back as two years. According to a representative from the cybersecurity firm the Journal retained to deal with the matter, “those behind this (hack) have a Chinese nexus, and we believe they are likely involved in espionage activities to collect intelligence to benefit China’s interests.”
The WSJ hack likely will have chilling consequences for the publication’s sources and should make people more reluctant to speak with reporters from any publication on a confidential basis. Yet Musk, always quick to criticize U.S. leaders and regulators, has so far remained tongue tied about China’s WSJ hack.
Spewing BS with abandon has become one of Musk’s hallmarks. In a conference call a year ago last January, Musk said he was “highly confident” Tesla would “be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of human this year.” Chris “CJ” Moore, previously Tesla’s director of Autopilot, wrote in a leaked memo that Musk’s claim didn’t match “engineering reality.”
Musk also fostered a persona that he maintained an austere lifestyle, including living in a modest $50,000 Texas home near the Mexican border. The Journal reported last December that Musk occupies an Austin mansion owned by a friend and that he’s looking to buy one for himself.
Musk had better hope that China doesn’t invade Taiwan, as some strategists fear. Musk is very much in bed with the Chinese government and it’s far from certain he’d comply with requests to withdraw from or boycott that country. Xi Jinping, China’s leader for life, reportedly isn’t worried about Musk’s loyalties to American interests or concerns. As reported by the Journal, Xi regards Musk as “a technology utopian with no political allegiance to any country.”
Years ago, Tesla did away with its PR department, reportedly because Musk didn’t think communications professionals added any value. Bloomberg reported that Tesla has beefed up his PR apparatus in China to mitigate the company’s troubled brand image there. Musk so far has correctly gambled that his larger-than-life persona in the U.S. shields him and his ventures from critical scrutiny, but he’s possibly mistaken the public and media lovefest with him will last forever.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: A person who is his own PR counsel has a fool for a client – regardless of that person’s brilliance.
As long as we’re on the subject of BS, GM CEO Mary Barra is deserving of a shoutout.
Barra has fashioned herself as an Elana Musk wannabe, proclaiming that the formerly bankrupt automaker could soon top Tesla in EV sales. “We want to lead in EVs. Full stop,” Barra told CBS News.
GM’s record with electric vehicles thus far hardly inspires confidence. The company’s Chevrolet Bolt five years ago was hailed as GM’s best chance at overtaking Tesla, but the company had to recall virtually all of them because they risked catching fire when they were parked and recharging. The future status of the Bolt remains uncertain, but it’s safe to say GM and Mary Barra are the least of Elon Musk’s concerns.
Barra recently announced that GM would invest $6.5 billion and create 4,000 jobs in Michigan, but there are indications that, too, was BS. In exchange for $661 million in tax credits, GM has only firmly committed to investing $3 billion and creating only 3,200 jobs.
For all Barra’s lofty talk about GM going green, those of us with long memories recall that as recently as 2019 GM joined with the Trump Administration to challenge California’s pollution standards.
The only green that Barra is committed to is the kind that lines her pockets. In 2020 alone, she earned more than $40 million in compensation. Barra isn’t deserving of $40 million for her entire eight-year tenure running GM.