Breathless coverage of Elon Musk is exactly how fake news begins

Today was just a normal ol’ day in the news cycle, at least in terms of 2017. And then Elon Musk decided to tweet something. 


“What does ‘verbal govt approval’ mean?” you might ask. “A good question!” says I. And the answer is: We have no freaking idea. For all we know, Musk had coffee with a few municipal officials who thought the idea was a fun way to jazz things up. 

Still, news organizations pounced immediately—or took the bait. Among the sweeping headline pronouncements: 

 • NBC New York: “NY to DC in 29 Minutes: Musk Gets Go-Ahead for Hyperloop.” (It has since been changed to “Elon Musk Says He Has Approval to Build NY-DC Hyperloop.” Facebook, however is still showing the first.)

 • The Independent: “Elon Musk ‘given approval’ to build 760mph Hyperloop between New York and D.C.”

 • SlashGear: “Elon Musk Hyperloop for 29 min NY-DC ride given go-ahead.” 

Numerous others have similar formations. At worst, these headlines promote something that has yet to be proven, and, at best, take Musk at his word. Musk [whom, I confess, is on the cover of our most recent issue] is known to hyperbolize and sometimes cause minor forms of hysteria; look at how he talks about artificial intelligence, for example. 

In a world where social media is a primary mode of news consumption, seeing a simple headline that says Musk received verbal approval likely begins a fake news cycle about how a newfangled high speed transportation is in place. But that’s not true! We have no idea who gave the approval. We have no idea who Musk was talking to. Thanks to some rigorous investigative reporting by Jalopnik (ie, emailing spokespeople at transit authorities for comments), what we do know is that most official organizations have no idea what Musk is talking about.

As he (like some other people with a lot of Twitter followers) manage to suck up all the air in the room (in the hot subway car?), there are actual everyday concerns to address, like how to support the aging transit infrastructure of cities like New York, which real people depend upon right now and for the foreseeable future. 

After receiving a little push-back—remember, Musk’s Boring Company is still just experimenting with this idea on a test track in Los Angeles—Musk tweeted that there’s “still a lot of work needed” to receive actual formal approval. I hope headline writers heed that warning too.

[Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images]