On Friday, Twitter users woke up to news that Elon Musk had died. The cause of death? A lithium battery he was handling at a Tesla facility exploded in his hands. As proof, many tweets had screenshots from reputable news outlets, and there was even a tweet from Grimes expressing grief that had supposedly been deleted after other users had heckled her. Many people believed what they had seen on Twitter, and Tesla stock took a big dip in morning trading.
As people started taking a closer look at the screenshots, couldn’t find any reputable news of Elon’s death, and finally saw a one-character tweet from Elon in the afternoon with the eyeroll emoji, it became apparent that the news of Elon’s death was greatly exaggerated. Stock prices mostly recovered from the morning crater by early afternoon, but didn’t get back to where they were.
Why This Should Concern People
The obviously insane thing about what happened on Friday was how internet rumors could quickly wipe out people’s wealth. Yes, the stock was already on a multi-day slide, but look at a 5-day chart and you’ll see the sudden morning dip that occurred and also see the quick rise. Smart people rode the fake story out and got mostly back to where they were, but prices don’t drop like that without a sudden drop in demand or a sudden binge of sells.
The fact that internet trolls could hold that kind of sway in the market is definitely cause for concern. This time, the hurt was limited and quickly corrected, but will worse things happen to companies in the future as people figure out how to do this better or keep the selloff going for longer?
Perhaps more concerning is that there’s good money to be made with this type of manipulation, so we will definitely see it again. If someone shorts the stock and then distorts it like this, they can quickly make a bunch of money. If regulators do their job and track down the distorters, one could still stand ready to quickly buy big in the dip and sell again after it recovers, and it would be hard to tell the person apart from the other people who tried to get a good deal.
There may also be motivation for competing companies and those invested in fossil fuels to attack clean energy companies in this fashion.
One Person or A Small Group Was Behind This One
I don’t have the resources to figure out whether they financially gained from this, but it is clear from what I could dig up that one person or a small group of people got the rumor started.
The #RIPElon Twitter hashtag has been used by people since 2011, but only very rarely and often not talking about Elon Musk. There was a sudden jump in use of the hashtag at 7:30 AM Pacific/10:30 Eastern. This was the first tweet to use the hashtag after it hadn’t been used for months:
#RIPelon devastating news. Not gonna be active today this is a big hit to the scientific community. pic.twitter.com/pfZVa16bEO
— GUY (@googpilled) March 5, 2021
This was the second one:
— Don (@DonCheadleFan2) March 5, 2021
Looking at almost all of the early tweets, a common pattern can be found. An account was created in the last few months in most cases which then had a bunch of tweets relevant to its name. Next, the account sat dormant for weeks or months until it was used today to create a bunch of #RIPElon memes and then go dormant again. The account that made the first tweet even commented on the next one’s tweet to build credibility. You can see this same pattern over and over for almost all of the early #RIPElon tweets.
You can see the pattern continue until enough real accounts were retweeting the memes and spreading the false information, which took hours. The early posts were designed to hook into existing feelings about Elon Musk himself, billionaires, clean energy technology, and labor in cobalt mines. Once a few thousand people took the bait, the tweet was off to the races.
The timing itself makes it clear that it was a coordinated effort to make the idea of Elon’s death spread. The way the accounts suddenly all came alive using the hashtag, and using a similar strategy, means that it wasn’t an organic internet rumor.
The way the fake accounts were all quickly spreading memes and fake screenshots shows that a lot of effort and premeditation went into this. It would have taken one person the better part of a day if not more to come up with all of these shareable images that the early accounts all used. It’s literally impossible for that many images to come up instantly like that.
Another clue is that many of the astroturfing accounts and some of the same screenshots mentioned “Whooky.” Know Your Meme tells the story of one user who astroturfed on Reddit, getting people to talk about a fictional item that doesn’t exist. Nobody was harmed by wondering what a “whooky sack” is, but the #RIPElon astroturf was far less harmless. We don’t know if it was the same person behind both trolls, or if the #RIPElon effort was only inspired by “whooky sack” posts, but anyone investigating this should look further into this.
Preventing This From Happening Again
We know from after the January 6th US Capitol riots that social media companies are equipped to quickly wipe users out who they think need to be removed from the platform. In the future, when fake news starts to spread like this, Twitter definitely has the ability to shut it down. If they only exercise this ability when it’s politically expedient, their past statements are rather disingenuous. People owning stocks and the companies issuing them deserve better than to see Twitter turn a blind eye to mass illegal market manipulation as long as evidence is preserved during deletion.
Law enforcement should also take a real look at what I’ve pointed out in this article. If they’re lucky, they’ll find common IP addresses behind the early astroturfing when they request information from Twitter. If the people doing this are more sophisticated and did this over VPNs or Tor, they’ll be harder to catch, but other correlations may make it possible to find them. If nothing else, the people who did this should stick out like a sore thumb with their patterns of selling shorts or buying the dip at just the right time. Further investigation would probably find more information on their computers tying them to the astroturfing.
If anybody from the SEC is reading this, please do your job here. If a few misguided tweets are enough to drag Elon Musk to court over, then this is definitely something that’s worth your time.