#nofilter – Is there such a thing as too much transparency?

by Claire Wilson

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These are interesting times for a copywriting agency: another day, another tweetstorm from the leader of the free world. As US President, Donald Trump has become notorious for his unbridled use of Twitter, choosing to vent his spleen on matters as varied as nuclear proliferation and TV programmes he dislikes. In a similar vein, Elon Musk’s social media outbursts have, on several occasions, wiped millions off the value of his company this year.

Trump and Musk’s use of Twitter is noteworthy because both are operating in realms where previously ‘messages’ have been carefully crafted and thoroughly vetted before they are distributed to specific audiences at designated times.  Instead, these infamously impulsive leaders take to Twitter to broadcast to the world, sharing their views on whoever and whatever they want to, seemingly with very little thought given to the consequences of their words.

So, what are the implications of this new unfiltered access to the views of politicians and business leaders? Have accuracy and truth lost out in the race to share opinions loudly and proudly?

Quick and dirty – the medium as the message

It’s significant that Twitter is the medium of choice for both leaders because it has a few features that make it particularly suited to spontaneous, off the cuff, and not necessarily accurate messages.

Firstly, it’s short. Until late 2017 tweets were limited to 140 characters, making them unavoidably direct, somewhat terse and lacking in nuance. The limit has increased to 280 characters, but it remains a medium focused on brevity.

Fair market disclosure or far from it?

Secondly, it’s fast. In fact, immediacy is prized above almost everything else by its users. You can’t edit a tweet after it’s been posted, so typos and sometimes an incomplete view of the facts are excused as a side-effect of the speed. A common feature of Trump and Musk’s tweets is a marked lack of care about the accuracy of their comments. This may not be such a big deal when people are discussing where to get the best burger in London but is an entirely different matter when there are potentially very serious real-world consequences of social media messages.

Some of these real-world consequences for Elon Musk’s company, Tesla, included downgraded credit ratings, sharp drops in the share price and, most recently, a series of high-profile departures from the executive team.  The SEC takes a more permissive view of social media market announcements than regulators in many other countries. But given the high stakes involved, commentators are speculating the SEC could face a backlash if no action is taken as a result of Musk’s shenanigans.

Although the SEC does not publicise its investigations, it’s likely that it will be particularly focused on Musk’s tweet of 7 August, stating he had secured funding to take Tesla private. If, as alleged by the plaintiff of a class action suit against Tesla, the tweet was untrue and intended to manipulate the share price of Tesla to punish short sellers, then the real-world consequences for Musk could be very serious indeed.

White lies or smoke and mirrors?

Musk’s defence of his tweet rests on discussions he was in with the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund to take Tesla private. Others will argue that by selecting the wording, “Funding secured.” he implied much more than a deal only in the discussion stage.  The case for the SEC could hinge on deciding whether this wording was intentionally misleading.

The removal of doubt

Whatever the outcome of the SEC investigation, there is one thing in no doubt: Elon Musk’s tweets have revealed an enormous amount about his character.  Alongside a clear sense of personal entitlement, he has displayed a casual disregard for the principles of free and fair markets. His actions and his words show he prizes his own impulses over the interests of his company and its shareholders. He has also demonstrated that the Board of Tesla has no influence to reign him in, raising doubt about its authority over the governance of the business.

Whether the content of his tweets is accurate and truthful, shareholders have gleaned a good amount of information about Elon Musk and his ability to steer the company they own a part of. So, the market has benefited from the transparency of his disclosures, but perhaps not in a way Musk would have hoped for.

It also demonstrates how communications can signify so much more than their content, with the choice of words, the choice of medium and even the timing all impacting on the ultimate message. Which is why we’re always working with our clients to get all of these things right. Because as a social content agency, we know they matter.

For me, the Elon Musk saga brings to mind a quote sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.

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