The art of the Misleading Headline: No, Californians aren’t being told not to charge their EVs

Seen amid the usual fire hose of anti-EV FUD this week: a host of articles with headlines like “A day after announcing a ban on gas cars, California tells drivers not to charge EVs.”

Above: A Tesla Model Y unit's headlight. Photo: James Kashcuk / Unsplash

California, like many regions, is dealing with energy shortages, so residents are being told to conserve electricity, and of course that means not driving their cars, right? Of course it doesn't. In fact, California utilities have been telling customers to avoid charging their EVs during the peak usage hours of 4-9 pm. This is something that every utility in the world recommends, that every conscientious EV driver already does, and that any EV can easily be programmed to do.

This enormous leap of illogic from “remember to save energy” to “they’re coming for your cars” is a classic example of one of the anti-EV troll’s most useful tools: the Misleading Headline. This isn’t the same as the shockbait headline that leads to an entire article full of misleading or false information. What we’re talking about here is a headline that doesn’t truly represent (and may even contradict) what the article actually says.

Sometimes the Misleading Headline (MH) is added by an editor who’s more concerned about generating clicks than about what his or her writer actually has to say (conflict = clicks). Other times it’s grafted onto an article by a social media FUD-peddler who probably doesn’t care whether you click or not.

More examples are as close as your LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter feed. Often, an article that has nothing negative to say about EVs can be made to sound like an anti-EV warning by punching up the headline. A 2019 article about EU hazardous-waste regulations appeared under this headline: “Hazards ahead: Electric cars face battery recycling hurdles in Europe.” Wow, sounds like battery recycling may be harder than we thought, right? Actually, the article asserts nothing of the kind—it discusses the fact that, because battery supply chains stretch across national borders, EU regulations need to be updated to allow recycled materials to be transported around Europe with a minimum of paperwork. The real story here is about how rapidly the battery recycling industry is developing.

Another example of headline-based scare-mongering: a piece in The New Republic, entitled “Climate Change’s Great Lithium Problem.” Anti-EV posters eagerly shared links to the article, citing it as evidence that electromobility is doomed by a looming shortage of lithium. Again, the article itself makes no such claim. Its main topic is lithium mining in Bolivia, and the questionable role of Western corporations, which have a long history of maximizing profits while ignoring the environmental and economic concerns of the locals. Certainly, this is an injustice that needs to be brought to light, but it’s hardly a justification for abandoning vehicle electrification and continuing to extract fossil fuels.

Different media often use headlines to spin the same story in opposite directions, sometimes to ludicrous extremes. A 2018 New York Times interview with Elon Musk provides one example—the headline in an EV-friendly mag quoted Elon saying, “the worst is over,” while the headline on an EV-bashing site quoted him saying, “the worst is yet to come.” (In fact, what he said was, “The worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint...but from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.”)

The Misleading Headline is not the same as a false headline. There are plenty of those out there too, but they tend to target a less sophisticated, more pliable audience. The classic anti-EV MH is not aimed at the flat-earthers, but at educated, environmentally aware people who might be logical candidates for EV ownership. The anti-EV warriors want to convince prospective purchasers that EVs are “not as green as they claim,” and many of their arguments are constructed around a grain of truth. Any article that describes any difficulty, constraint or concern having to do with EVs, no matter how slight, will soon appear under a headline citing it as evidence that EVs are not green, not woke, not socially just...and gently insinuating that car buyers of a liberal bent would be much better off buying gas-burners.

Note also that a provocative headline is not necessarily meant to be a misleading one. One of the differences between a journalist and a troll is that we journalists want people to click on our headlines and read our articles (trolls are usually happy for you to just keep the headline in your memory, a little seed of doubt waiting to germinate). We often craft headlines that ask rhetorical questions, in hopes that readers will click to find (what we think is) the answer.

For example, I recently published an article headlined “Will the Buy American provisions of the revamped EV tax credit do more harm than good?” This is in fact a question that’s been posed by several environmentalists and EV-industry observers. If you read the article (please do), you’ll find that, in my opinion, the answer is no. The Inflation Reduction Act adds eligibility conditions to the EV tax credit that are intended to force automakers to offer cheaper EVs and to bring more of their supply chains to the US. Assuming that the IRA survives the inevitable political attacks intact, I (and several industry experts that I cited) believe that the law will do much to achieve these goals.

The line between provocative and misleading is not always a bright one. Among the thousands of articles out there with headlines like “Are EVs as green as you think?” quite a lot of them conclude that the answer is an emphatic Yes. National Geographic once published an article under the headline “Was Darwin Wrong?” The first page of the article (in the print version) contained an enormous “No” in red letters, and the author went on to explain that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. But I’d be willing to bet that more than a few creationists crowed that National Geo had gone over to their side.

The moral of the story is simple: Read the articles, folks, not just the headlines (says every journalist in the world in a pleading tone, but without much hope).


More about the infamous Misleading Headline:
Debunking electric car myths—again

More about common tactics used by the troll hordes:
Favorite rhetorical tools used to spread anti-EV misinformation

See also:
Handy links to debunk common anti-EV myths
Debunking common anti-EV myths, Part Two