When Tesla looked like it might fail to launch its first mass-market sedan in 2018, a battle with enormous stakes — billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, the electrification of the global automotive industry — was fought principally online. On one side, skeptical investors and journalists with a compelling case that the company was doomed; on the other, an informal army of Tesla owners and Elon Musk devotees who rallied to his defense.
Musk won, and he continues to derive enormous value from his social-media legions. While Ford spends $3 billion a year on marketing, Tesla spends zero, and it’s principally Musk who generates buzz for the brand via Twitter, where he is in direct, nearly constant contact with the fan base. Recently, New York asked two committed members of this cohort to discuss what compels them to support the cause.
Kim Paquette, a flight attendant from Newport, Rhode Island, with 40,000 followers: At first it was kind of rooting for the underdog.
Earl Banning, a neuropsychologist in Alaska with 87,000 followers: Elon — he’s charismatic, he’s a salesman, he’s super-bright, he has big dreams. And the cars are sexy, they’re awesome — like, you want that car. I was just really enamored with the whole vibe behind Elon.
K.P.: Elon is excited about the future, and he gets you excited about the future by talking about the products that they’re working on. That was kind of what sucked me in — I agreed that we needed to transition to sustainable transportation.
E.B.: And once I finally got a Tesla, it was even better than I thought it would be.
K.P.: Earl and I both got to Twitter around the same time, in 2016, and what we found was just this vast amount of total bullshit that was being spewed by people who wanted Tesla and Elon to fail. I don’t know why — maybe Earl can explain it better — but we all felt we had to defend these lies. We called ourselves FUD fighters, for “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” We felt like there was this coordinated effort to undermine this company, and we believed in the mission and Elon.
E.B.: Just watch a Tesla event. When Elon comes out to reveal a product and everybody’s screaming and it’s packed and he’s talking about things like climate change and the need for solar and batteries and moving on from oil: He’s speaking to me. That’s what I want, too, for me and my kids. And once I finally got a Tesla, it was even better than I thought it would be. I am authentically so excited about this car I can’t stop talking about it. This is why I got on Twitter — ’cause nobody in my real life wants to hear about this.
K.P.: If you wanted to know anything about your car, you didn’t talk to your neighbor, ’cause nobody had these cars yet. You had to go online. And you just kind of built these relationships. I don’t talk to any of my normal friends about this.
E.B.: Online, you can find so many Earls. It’s just a wonderful community. But then you would have these people infiltrating it. And you’d see cruel, mean, and blatantly dishonest things about Elon, about the company, about the cars, about everything.
K.P.: All these lies on Twitter — I think it just galvanized people behind him.
E.B.: Elon tweeted my video — of my car parking itself in my garage — and it was the first time I really had a big tweet. You know how you go to Vegas, hit the jackpot once, and you’re addicted? That’s how I got hooked. But people started accusing me of editing it, or being paid by Elon, ’cause secretly Elon’s a fraud. It drove me nuts. If anything, it just made me more fervent to defend the truth that I knew.
K.P.: It really does make you start defending him and the car and the company, because you know that what they’re saying is completely untrue. It roped us all in, and then it kind of built on itself so that we became more fervent. There was this whole …
E.B.: Oh, boy.
K.P.: We called them the Parking Lot Truthers. They called themselves the Shorty Air Force — as in short seller — where they would use drones and say, “See, Tesla can’t sell these cars, so they’re stashing them in these parking lots.” They had this whole conspiracy theory. Earl, what else?
E.B.: You had the opposite of that too, because when there weren’t full parking lots, if they were empty, that was bad too. Like, they’re not making the cars anymore because no one buys them.
K.P.: Then there’s the Tesla deaths site.
E.B.: They market it as deaths that were caused by Teslas. But when you read the list, it’s things like a Tesla was driving on the highway and concrete fell from the overpass onto the car. It’s just the most absurd document I’ve ever read. It’s utterly comical.
K.P.: Pushing that narrative that Teslas are unsafe. It’s ongoing to this day with Full Self-Driving Beta and clowns who are saying that this is a menace to the public.
E.B.: “Millions will die.”
K.P.: They love to say that ordinary people are the unwitting guinea pigs and did not sign up to be part of Tesla’s test program and, you know, all this crap. Meanwhile, there have been no accidents.
E.B.: I know I got pretty obsessed with Tesla. I mean, I have a “frunkpuppy” account — putting dogs in the front trunk. This has obviously gone too far.
But I feel like the really hostile FUD fighting has really died down. A lot of those accounts are gone; a lot of short sellers got their faces ripped off. Still, I think it’s important to have a Twitter account where people can come and ask questions and to spread the word about Tesla. It’s important because that really is the marketing piece now — they don’t do marketing.
K.P.: I do still call some things out. Just yesterday, I was dispelling a lie that some crazy person said, that you can’t charge your EV at home. Everybody jumped on him. I still fight the fight a little bit.
E.B.: I try to do the same. There was a big FSD Beta article, and afterward I drove around with FSD Beta on while interviewing my 10-year-old daughter about how she feels safe. Does she ever feel in danger? She’s like, “What are you talking about?” She couldn’t even wrap her brain around the story out there about how dangerous this thing is.
K.P.: Elon is not always on his best behavior, and some of Elon’s superfans will defend him at all cost, no matter what he says or does. Or they’ll change their opinion based on whatever he says and stuff.
E.B.: In the beginning, maybe it was a little more of a cult mentality.
K.P.: I don’t think that that’s the majority of people, though. I think that most people accept him for who he is, warts and all, and that in the end, we just really love our cars. And that these cars would not exist except for this guy as a genius. And yeah, sometimes he makes a jerk of himself. The fact that he’s flawed is part of his draw. He’s being real.
E.B.: Earlier on, when Kim and I first started doing this, I could probably rubber-stamp just about anything Elon would say and be like, “Oh, I pretty much see this the same way,” like about climate change and oil and things like that. More recently, there are just things I won’t even touch.
K.P.: You should see all the MAGA people who follow me now! No matter what I tweet now, there will be people replying about free speech and Hunter Biden’s laptop. That’s not what I’m here for. It’s a weird position to build your account around this person.
(This conversation has been edited. It has been updated to show that Banning recently moved from Ohio to Alaska.)