In business, finding out what's true is more valuable than ever: Don Pittis

A business boss, a Saudi government, a conspiracy theorist, a president, climate scientists, the media, all accused of telling lies. At least in one case the Securities and Exchange Commission has the power to make a ruling.

Did Tesla's Elon Musk tell the truth about his buyback plans? At least he must satisfy a powerful watchdog

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk suggested this week he plans to take the electric carmaker private. Did he mean it? (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

When Tesla boss Elon Musk announced Tuesday he was thinking of arranging a buyback of all the electric car company's shares, the first thing everyone wanted to know was whether it was true.

While it is always hard to measure exact gradations of truth, there is a growing apprehension among people who depend on knowing what's so and what's not so. In a modern sea of falsehoods, separating fact from fiction is more valuable than ever.

Truth matters in many parts of our lives, but in the world of business it can be measured in cold, hard cash.

The price of truth

"Musk needs just 61 characters to lift wealth by $900 million," quipped a headline on the business news site Bloomberg shortly after the Tesla boss's tweet.

Just as Musk and other shareholders were riding share prices up, investors who had been betting the shares would fall lost about $1.7 billion, Reuters reported Tuesday.

Those skeptical that Tesla deserves to be worth more than General Motors and Ford with only a tiny fraction of their sales suspect Musk was manipulating the market price of his shares.

But in business, truth is a defence against such charges and it seems pretty clear Musk has been "considering" taking the company private, having discussed it with his board of directors. But there are still those who doubt the part of the tweet that stated "Funding secured."

And in the case of alleged attempts at market manipulation, even by powerful people like Musk, there is a body, called the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, that can step in and make a final ruling. There are now reports the SEC is investigating whether Musk's comments were truthful.

True or false?

The commission itself doesn't chit-chat about cases it's investigating, but according to former SEC director Harvey Pitt, the regulator has plenty of room to investigate and charge Musk if it finds he tried to manipulate the stock price.

"He has claimed there's a specific source of the funding, so that had better be true. He's also claimed there's a specific amount of the funding, so that better be true," Pitt said in a telephone interview with CNBC. "Otherwise, even if it is not manipulation, it would be fraud." 

The children's game of true or false doesn't seem as easy as it used to. For those of us grasping for truth in a world that seems full of convenient lies, knowing there is a body like the SEC to step in and try to keep powerful business leaders honest is at least a small comfort.

But in so many other areas, truth seems to have lost its currency. And unlike with the securities business, there is no regulator to intervene and tell us what's so.

Saudi Arabia's diplomatic row with Canada has featured a 'bizarre' examination of Canada's human rights record courtesy of Saudi-owned media. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

The trend away from truth and toward saying whatever is in your best interest is one I wrote about a year and a half ago. But this week it seemed the trickle had become a torrent.

As part of Saudi Arabia's retaliation against Canada for expressing concerns about the kingdom's human rights record, Saudi-owned media launched what Business Insider called "a series of bizarre videos" to condemn Canada's own track record. One clip even accused Canada of persecuting the late Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, who was extradited from both the U.S. and Canada and convicted in Germany.

Paul Manafort's fraud trial is in the spotlight, too, but he is just the latest in a succession of people connected to — and including — U.S. President Donald Trump to be accused of spreading outright lies.

'Deranged cult'   

Also in the news is conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who was booted from Apple, Facebook, Spotify and YouTube but has promoted his tale of persecution to his hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter.

Many of us also learned about QAnon, which the Washington Post has described as a "deranged conspiracy cult" that seems to actually believe that a global group child-molesting elite is trying to overthrow Trump.

Where is the SEC for that?

There have always been shades of truth. During the Cold War, the communists claimed a democracy of equality and the capitalist West its democracy of freedom. 

And there have always been conspiracy theorists who ignored science entirely. In the 1960s and '70s, Erich von Daniken described humans visited by visitors from space whom they treated as gods.

Followers of his theories had to buy his book to be indoctrinated. Now you just need a few friends on Facebook or Twitter to direct you to babble.

Cost of falsehoods

Humans have a long history of credulity. The fact that the world's religions propose various scientifically impossible and conflicting events has never stopped each of them from attracting fundamentalists who are convinced of every word.

The internet was supposed to give us an ideal democracy where everyone got a voice. And according to the concept of the marketplace of ideas, this was supposed to lead us closer to truth.

That's also traditionally been the role of the news media. Mainstream outlets have had their share of ethical scandals over the years and have always faced accusations of bias, but the value of their role in sorting fact from fiction has never faced a popular smear campaign led by the president of the United States.  

Most of us used to believe in scientific method, the processes of proposing hypotheses and trying to discredit them with scientific tests. This is why those of us who understand scientific method — that elite group that includes almost every Canadian who studied and understood high school science — ought to know climate change is happening.

But in the new world where each internet voice is equal to the next, the test for truth has been swamped by cocksure statements and pseudoscience posing as the real thing.

In business, truth matters. Outside of business, the value of truth is harder to measure. But guiding our lives by pure falsehood surely has a cost. And there's no SEC to set us straight.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


  • A previous version of this story conflated the writings of Immanuel Velikovsky with those of Erich von Däniken.
    Aug 09, 2018 1:26 PM ET

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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