Ted Stein is a software engineer with nearly 20 years experience. As an independent contractor, he's completed multiple projects for various government agencies and a blue-chip corporation. So if there's one thing he knows how to do, it's build a website.
Which is exactly what Stein decided to do in May.
The subject, however, was a controversial one. He decided to document the bold, unrealised projections of Elon Musk, Tesla's chief executive. A man notorious for over-promising and underdelivering.
The website's premise, which can be found at elonmusk.today, is simple. It lists an Elon Musk statement — such as a projected autonomous cross-country trip in a Tesla by the end of 2017 — and how long it has been since said statement. In case you're wondering, that one was mentioned 980 days ago.
Stein, when Alphaville called him Monday, explained the rationale behind the site:
I had little exposure to Elon Musk before I decided to watch the Tesla Autonomy Day in April. I was curious about the software development that went into autonomous driving and during the presentation I was stunned by how many false statements he [Elon Musk] made. I then realised how many times he'd said something that hadn't turned out to be true, so I thought it would be funny to put them all together in one place.
Built in the evenings in about a two-week period, it went live on June 5. Most of the work, Stein told Alphaville, was making sure the site was sourced reliably.
Alphaville became aware of the page a few weeks ago and found it amusing. Nothing more. Some of Musk's claims — such as the installation of a rollercoaster at Tesla's factory to whizz employees around the Fremont factory — are the stuff of fantasy. It all seemed fairly harmless though. We all know Musk promises the world and sometimes gets there. What's new?
So it was with some surprise that a few Twitter users began to report the site had become inaccessible on Friday — blocked by built-in security features provided by companies such as McAfee.
Stein, who, to his knowledge, had never had one of the dozen or so sites he's built blocked before, told Alphaville he initially thought “that the site had a virus or might have been hacked”. But upon checking, he found nothing of the sort.
On Saturday, however he realised there was a problem: the site had been blacklisted by McAfee, and therefore traffic to the site had all but vanished, as many internet users have its security software installed on their browsers. The reason wasn't clear.
For instance, as Stein pointed out on Twitter, there was seemingly nothing wrong with it:
It wasn't just McAfee though. The Financial Times' internal firewall also blocked the website. This was the page which greeted us on Monday morning when we tried to access it:
The FT's crack cyber security team told us:
The firewall filters based on whether a webpage is being promoted through spamming techniques — this policy could be blocking access to that page.
In terms of the content on the webpage itself — we could not find anything that would suggest that there is risk in accessing it.
Stein denies promoting the site through spamming techniques. He told us the site had only been promoted through his Twitter account, and mentioned on a few websites including Naked Capitalism. Plus, he added, as it generates no revenues, there is little point in spamming it.
Although the site is no longer caught by McAfee's filter, it told us:
WebAdvisor is designed to help keep people safe from threats while they search and browse the web. Such threats could include malware embedded into web pages or email phishing attempts, but without impacting the browsing performance or experience.
McAfee, however, did not respond to a question over why the site was blacklisted.
However elonmusk.today, as our Cyber team said, is a pretty innocent site. Indeed, as Stein pointed out to us, it's a very basic website with content, a few scripts running and Google Analytics to keep tab of visitor numbers. There's no real reason why it would ever be picked up by the internet's de facto police.
To say the least, Stein is bemused. He suggested that the site may have been flagged because the server, which hosts dozens of other websites, was blacklisted.
But he has another theory. Pointing to tslaq.org — a website built by short-sellers for coalescing data on Tesla — also being subject to a blacklisting, Stein said:
McAfee is not transparent and I don't know why they flagged my site. Given that they have a form where users can anonymously report sites and they are the only company that flagged multiple sites critiquing Tesla, I believe it highly likely that there was a co-ordinated effort to use McAfee to damage these sites.
The form he is referring to is McAfee's “Customer URL Ticketing System”, which allows users to anonymously flag websites.
In other words, Stein reckons that Tesla's legion of online supporters made a concerted attempt to shut down access to a website they felt did not paint a positive picture of Elon Musk and his businesses.
To be frank, it is an impossible accusation to prove and McAfee did not respond when asked if this was the case.
We do know, however, that Tesla's forums regularly complain about the raucous Twitter short cabal. One thread on teslamotorsclub, posted earlier this month, suggested co-ordinated reporting of accounts to shut down the Tesla Twitter bears:
Then, of course, there's the case of then pseudonymous Tesla critic Montana Skeptic, whose public identity was revealed online by a Twitter user, according to proxy Tesla investor relations website Elecktrek. After he was outed, Montana Skeptic said that Elon Musk phoned his company threatening a lawsuit. He subsequently deleted his Twitter account, and has since made a name for himself appearing in online media.
Whether Stein suffered from the same issue is another question all together, but it does point to an emergence of a new problem online, particularly with businesses that have a fanatical following.
As Tom covered in last year's article on digital bank Monzo — another company with a deep well of online support — passionate followers not only act as ambassadors for the business, but help to manage the reputation of a company online, circumventing, and often doing a better job, than traditional PR and media channels.
However, as the Montana Skeptic case proved, this has a flipside — supporters are also useful suppressors of information. They can anonymously take snide shots in the comments of a negative article, or perhaps even, theoretically we must stress, cause a dissenting website to remain inaccessible to most.
It is often joked that the quickest to way to get rich is to found a religion. But it seems nowadays, it is also becoming a pre-requisite to building a successful business.
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