Every Elon Musk tweet is a new front in a bitter social media war. On one side are the Tesla fanatics, who hang on the billionaire owner and CEO’s every word and burst into tears of joy at his interviews; on the other are the skeptics, who congregate on social media under the hashtag $TSLAQ, and who dislike Musk and are adamant that his car company is going to fail.
When Musk takes to Twitter, you’re likely to see both parties go to bat in his replies, arguing about the company’s success and future share price. For some, their love or hatred of Musk and Tesla has gone beyond a hobby to become a crucial facet of their online personality. Where an average person might use their Twitter bio to detail their love of cooking or their favourite football club, these users have built their digital identities around the fact that they own a particular car, or hold a certain stock position. But why are people so obsessed? There are plenty of car companies; what is it about Tesla and its CEO in particular that has proven so divisive?
It’s partly down to Musk himself, who has built a strong cult of personality with his involvement in the high-profile worlds of space travel and electric vehicles, and his promises to deliver a sci-fi world where we live on Mars and travel in tubes. Musk’s willingness to communicate frankly and directly is in stark contrast to most CEOs, and this has helped to attract a host of Tesla superfans, who hang on his every tweet and share articles about new Tesla features with the giddy excitement of people in the queue outside the Apple Store at 4AM.
Anyone who writes or tweets about electric cars, batteries or solar panels will have run into the groups on Twitter. They are effusive with their praise and talk of being overcome with emotion when watching Musk being interviewed. “He confronts almost the whole world and does not give up,” wrote one user in reply to a recent Musk tweet. “He continues to fight for what he believes. The Tesla community is growing every day, so now Elon is not himself, we are all with him!”
But the fandom has also been accused of attacking journalists who criticise Musk. When Erin Biba, a journalist for the Daily Beast, posted a Twitter thread criticising Musk, she was inundated with abuse across Twitter, Instagram and email ranging from the unpleasant to the unprintable. As I’m writing this, Twitter user @teslafunisrael – whose profile photo is a picture of Musk – has criticised WIRED’s review of the Kia e-Niro saying it’s “full of anti-Tesla venom” for comparing the car favourably to the Model 3. But it’s all about perspective. When I profiled Musk for the magazine last year, I was simultaneously praised for painting a picture of an “intellectual giant” and accused of “cosying up to a fraudster”.
The same qualities that make some people worship Musk have led others to despise him. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be skeptical about Tesla’s long-term fortunes – the company lost $702 million (£559m) in the first quarter of 2019, and has had problems scaling its production to meet demand. But the social media critics, who congregate under the hashtag $TSLAQ (Q is a suffix usually applied to the stock market abbreviations of companies that are going bankrupt), mainly target the company’s owner. They claim Musk is a charlatan, and that the whole enterprise is built on shaky foundations.
Some $TSLAQ supporters perceive a certain arrogance to Musk when working in industries outside his core expertise – they say he sweeps in, tells people with decades of experience that they’re doing it wrong, and then suggests solutions that won’t work for quite basic reasons. The Thai submarine fiasco is a classic example. Tesla skeptic Sam Viskovic, an electrical engineer based in New Zealand, says he paid Tesla no attention until it started pushing into his area of expertise, with “impractical and expensive” battery systems. “Elon wanted to revolutionise everything when he should have understood what the industry was doing well first,” he says.
Musk’s public persona has helped build the company from nothing to a major player in the automotive industry, but his habit of engaging directly with its denigrators on Twitter only adds fuel to the raging fire. Sometime he will seemingly reply to random tweets sent to him. “It isn’t about the money for me,” says anonymous $TSLAQ member Tesla Charts, who stresses that he is an environmentalist and drives a Chevy Volt. “It is about the specific behaviour of one person and his army of enablers.”
Many critics are putting their money where their mouth is and betting against Tesla through short-selling – a stock market manoeuvre whereby investors make money when shares in a particular company fall in value, rather than rise. “Short sellers are the policemen of the stock exchange,” says Viskovic. Tesla is one of the most shorted stocks on the US stock exchange – although it’s not, as Musk has claimed, the most shorted stock in history.
The two opposing communities of Tesla fans and haters have developed their own history and hierarchies. There are $TSLAQ celebrities, such as Mark B Spiegel, an investor at Stanphyl Capital who has the personalised number-plate TSLAQ on his Porsche. In a recent podcast, @TeslaCharts talked about the trust he has in fellow members of $TSLAQ. When a former Tesla employee took to GoFundMe earlier this year, claiming that he couldn’t work due to injury, dozens of Tesla critics donated, leaving comments like, “TSLAQ people are good people” and “Get fucked, Elon Musk”.
Sometimes, the conflict even spills into the real world. Randeep Hothi, a resident of Fremont, California who tweets at the handle @skabooshka, gained favour in the $TSLAQ community because he lives close to the Tesla factory and was able to fly drones over the facility and count the number of finished cars. On April 16, he spotted a Tesla Model 3 on the highway near the company’s factory. Court filings allege that Hothi (who denies the claims) then set off in pursuit, harassing the car for about 35 minutes, taking photos and swerving close enough to the vehicle that the collision avoidance safety feature was triggered. The court documents also accuse Hothi of being involved in an altercation with a Tesla security guard, whom Tesla says Hothi hit with his car (Hothi denies this). A crowdfunding campaign for Hothi’s legal defense, started by another $TSLAQ member, has gained over $115,000.
These divisions between Tesla fans and foes may owe something to psychology. Humans are – as we’ve seen lately – very good at dividing themselves into arbitrary groups over essentially meaningless traits such as skin colour, music taste, or their opinion on Britain’s position in a customs union. Social psychology experiments have shown that making people aware of arbitrary distinctions – like whether they prefer the work of Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky – can cause them to treat members of the other group unfairly.
The famous Robbers Cave experiment from the 1950s divided 22 boys at a summer camp into two gangs – the Rattlers and the Eagles – and found that they were insulting and antagonising each other within hours of becoming aware of the other group’s existence. “You can start out with something that seems benign,” says Dominic Abrams, a social psychologist and director of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the University of Kent. “But once they start directly competing it can get more heated.”
As a result, people’s views on Tesla and Musk have become entwined with their identity and their moral stance. “It’s beyond rational debate and argument,” says Abrams, who draws parallels with Brexit and Donald Trump. “It gets into the realm of, ‘Does this person stand for the things I believe in and cherish?’” Fans of Musk tend to turn a blind eye to his misdemeanours, thanks to a phenomenon that Abrams calls ‘deviance credit’. “Once people have a leader – and I suppose you could think of Musk as the leader of the brand – they allow that leader to innovate and transgress to a greater extent than another member of the group,” he says.
For their part, Tesla fans see $TSLAQ in a similar vein to flat-earthers or anti-vaxxers – fossil fuel-loving Luddites who refuse to embrace the future. $TSLAQ reserve a similar degree of contempt for their counterparts in the stock market. “Tesla bulls want to believe they will get rich and are willing to believe almost anything,” says Viskovic.
One group may be proven right in the end – or, perhaps more likely, reality will land somewhere in the middle of the extreme competing visions for the company’s future. There’s no reason why a car company should be so divisive, but the warring tribes of Tesla fans and $TSLAQ speak to human nature, the cult of celebrity, and the polarising impact of the social media echo chamber.
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