In the beginning, the reason for the internet’s existence was to connect people as vastly and as easily as possible. Its fatal flaw, perhaps, is that nobody thought about the horrible things people might do once those walls were broken down. One of the most disconcerting trends of the modern internet is the specific, reflexive ways that bad actors have learned to manipulate and dismiss inconvenient truths by using the culture, systems, and mechanics of the internet. In the four decades since the internet expanded beyond its military origins, a clear playbook has emerged for denying reality — and it’s one that is insidiously easy to use. That hasn’t been good for discourse or truth. Elon Musk, the tech mogul and Tesla CEO, might be about to make things worse.
Yesterday, Musk took issue with a negative article about Tesla, tweeting that “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.”
In the resulting tweetstorm — which ricocheted around the internet like a bullet in a cartoon — Musk floated the idea of founding a crowdsourced site called Pravda, which would, in Musk’s words, let “the public […] rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication.”
Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired. Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn’t advertise, but fossil fuel companies & gas/diesel car companies are among world’s biggest advertisers.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
Even if some of the public doesn’t care about the credibility score, the journalists, editors & publications will. It is how they define themselves.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
Many, including Musk’s biographer Ashlee Vance, noted that Musk seemed to have taken a page from President Donald Trump, in categorizing any negative news about him or his companies as “fake” — a trend that Trump started and popularized in order to discredit the entire American news media. (That, by the way, is one of the first things that autocrats seek to do after taking power.)
While this initially seemed like a spur-of-the-moment, harmless, and amusing bit of rage-tweeting, an enterprising reporter found a statement of incorporation that was filed back in October in California by one of Musk’s agents: Pravda Corp.
Musk has started too many companies on too many whims to let this go unremarked. Pravda is not just a bad idea; it’s a dangerous one for the internet, truth, and democracy. Let me explain why.
On May 5th, 1912 — Karl Marx’s birthday — the original iteration of Pravda (which means “truth”) began publication in St. Petersburg as the mouthpiece of the Russian Communist party under Lenin. By 1918, after the Russian Revolution, the newspaper became the modern state’s official propaganda outlet. The “truth” contained in the paper was the state’s truth, which did not reflect what was actually happening in the country. This is why certain parts of the internet are banned to this day in countries like China and Russia. If a repressive state relinquishes control of reality, that means its end.
Though its aim is different, Musk’s Pravda — if brought into existence — will do a similar thing. He accurately notes that trust in the media is at an all-time low and that people don’t believe what they read in the news anymore — which, by the way, is the whole point of propaganda: not to misinform but to undermine belief in the existence of a shared reality — but he is entirely wrong about the solution. The way to restore trust in the media (which I’m generously assuming is the goal) is not to turn the definition of truth over to a mob.
Pravda is insidious precisely because it would allow its users — or at least its loudest ones — to redefine truth. It would be easy to manipulate because it ignores every lesson we’ve learned about the internet. First, we know that people online have different opinions than people who don’t spend all day on the internet, and the results of an internet poll may not signify the opinions of a majority of Americans.
We also know that places like 4chan exist, and we know they organize to mob online polls or review bomb movies and games to sabotage them and make certain ideologies — like, say, excluding women and people of color from media — seem more mainstream. Similarly, we know how difficult it is to make systems resistant to sufficiently motivated review bombers. Online mobs spring up at the slightest provocation, and teenagers have all the time in the world. Bots are another problem. They have inhuman amounts and are even better at performing repetitive tasks, like fraudulently voting in polls or posting political propaganda to Twitter.
This should be common knowledge to anyone who’s lived online for any time at all, including anyone who lived through Gamergate (a group of conspiracy theorists who decided to build a reality where they believed they were investigating “ethics in games journalism” that only happened to harass many women off the internet), Comicsgate (the same thing, only with comics), or incels (“involuntarily celibate” men who feel entitled to sex and have literally killed people over it). It shouldn’t be unfamiliar to Musk, unless he has been too ensconced in his personal bubble of wealth and tech optimism to see it.
What links these toxic online movements — along with the Sad Puppies, Jordan Peterson devotees, MAGA chuds, and so forth — is the way that each one uses internet echo chambers to manipulate reality and undermine the veracity of any sources that conflict with them. After living in these poisoned spaces, people also become susceptible to other distortions. (Similarly, if someone believes the Moon landing was faked, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to believing the Earth is flat.) In a vacuum, this would be fine; in a society, however, this is a deadly disease that attacks the very notion of empirical reality. An uninformed public is a public that can be led to believe anything, and that is a very dangerous thing in the hands of a motivated actor.
Pravda is a very, very bad idea mostly because it won’t work. By ignoring the reality of how truth is manipulated, degraded, and propagated in online spaces, it ensures that it will tell us little about journalistic veracity or “core truth” and everything about what its most zealous mobs feel should be the truth. Starting an organization dedicated to letting people believe reality is whatever they say it is might feel nice, and possibly even generous, but there’s also an ulterior motive here. Musk, like the president, may not like the way reporting makes him feel exposed or like a victim or like a failure. Nobody does! But you cannot legislate veracity and reality, or put it up to a vote, and expect any result but a dystopia.