Elon Musk vs. the Trolls
On Sept. 2 the conservative web magazine the Federalist published an article titled “Elon Musk Continues to Blow Up Taxpayer Money With Falcon 9.” The author was identified as Shepard Stewart. Two days earlier, the Stewart byline appeared on a piece on the Libertarian Republic website called “Here’s How Elon Musk Stole $5 Billion in Taxpayer Dollars.” Two days before that, the Liberty Conservative site carried a Stewart article headlined “Elon Musk: Faux Free Marketeer and National Disgrace.”
Funny thing, though: Shepard Stewart isn’t a real person. “Definitely a fake,” says Gavin Wax, editor-in-chief of the Liberty Conservative. A chagrined Wax says the “Stewart” character “went totally dark on us after we published him.” Wax discovered that a photograph “Stewart” uses online appears to be an altered version of a former Twitter executive’s LinkedIn headshot.
Musk attracts an unusually large and varied number of shrouded online attacks, including phony op-ed pieces, websites with shadowy backers, and individuals who hide behind aliases. “These are tools used by those who don’t have facts on their side,” says Sarah O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Tesla, the electric car maker Musk co-founded and runs.
The Liberty Conservative has taken down its Stewart article, as has the Libertarian Republic. The Federalist site still has its piece up. Editors with the latter two didn’t respond to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
Musk inspires strong admiration and criticism for his industry-disrupting companies: Tesla; SolarCity, a solar panel installer he co-founded; and Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, a rocket company he founded and heads. On Nov. 17 shareholders approved Tesla’s $2 billion acquisition of SolarCity.
These diverse business interests mean Musk has numerous rivals. “It seems like he’s got a lot of people who don’t like him,” says Brian Walsh, a partner with Rokk Solutions, a Washington, D.C., communications firm. Walsh ticks off coal companies and utilities uneasy about SolarCity and automakers and dealers concerned about Tesla. This spring, Walsh’s firm worked for United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and helped persuade Congress to let ULA buy Russian-made rocket engines, over SpaceX’s objections.
During the lobbying fight, a website called Who Is Elon Musk? maintained a steady drumbeat of criticism of SpaceX, as well as Musk’s other companies. A video on the site, titled American Swindler: The Elon Musk Story, accuses him of “lining the pockets of Democratic and Republican politicians with millions of dollars in donations.” (Musk has given about $515,000 to politicians and political groups since 2003, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group.)
“That’s not us,” Walsh says of the website. “I don’t know who it is.” A United Launch spokeswoman says, “It would be inappropriate for ULA to comment on a site not related to our company or industry.” The site identifies its sponsor as the Center for Business and Responsible Government, “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to highlighting cronyism and its effects on American taxpayers and policy.” But there’s no trace of the center anywhere online or in the brick-and-mortar world.
A similar website called Stop Elon From Failing Again lists its sponsor as a conservative advocacy group called Citizens for the Republic. Diana Banister, a PR executive who serves as CFTR’s executive director, says the site singles out Musk because “he is the epitome of a businessman who gets subsidy after subsidy he doesn’t need.” It’s impossible to tell who’s ultimately paying for CFTR’s campaign against Musk, as the organization is a so-called 501(c)(4) social welfare group, which under federal law doesn’t have to disclose its supporters. Banister says contributors to CFTR are “small donors, mostly” and “nothing competitive with” Musk. Asked whether oil companies antagonistic toward Tesla might be behind the website, Banister says: “We reached out to them [for donations], but they haven’t responded.”
One online antagonist allegedly tried the bizarre approach of impersonating Musk in pursuit of inside information about Tesla. On Aug. 3, Tesla’s chief financial officer, Jason Wheeler, received an e-mail from ElonTesla@yahoo.com requesting more detailed nonpublic data than had been released earlier that day when the company disclosed its second-quarter results. After some digital sleuthing, Tesla filed suit in September in California state court against Todd Katz, a longtime online critic of Tesla’s financial management who admits to using the aliases Elon Madoff and Enron Musk. Katz worked as CFO for Quest Integrity, an oil industry service company. He was part of an effort by the fossil fuel business to undermine the electric car company’s push for cleaner transportation, Tesla alleged.
Without admitting or denying he’d sent the e-mail, Katz, who’s left his job at Quest, said in court papers that Tesla’s suit should be dismissed because the message in question was too “goofy” to be believed. In counterclaims, Katz accused Tesla of unlawfully hacking his Twitter account to “publicly embarrass and silence him, and discourage other critics.”
Another online critic of Tesla’s, who posts under the name Keef Leech and Keef Wivaneff (“with-an-f”), is actually Australian Keith Leech, a retired computer engineer who says he’s “a bit of an obsessive.” He’s spent more than a year collecting photos of crashed Teslas from junkyards that he says show evidence of a defective suspension system. He says he’s filed about 100 complaints based on the photos with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. On the Tesla Bears Club, a site for short sellers, Leech has posted a “Tesla Hall of Shame” compiling his NHTSA complaints. He says he recently bought Tesla puts, another way to bet on a company’s stock dropping. Leech says he’s never driven a Tesla.
On June 8, an auto site called the Daily Kanban reported on the suspension complaints, igniting broader coverage. On June 10, NHTSA said it was conducting a routine “review” and to date hadn’t “identified any safety issue with Tesla suspensions.” Musk said on Twitter that most of the NHTSA complaints were “fraudulent” and that “one or more people sought to create the false impression of a safety issue.” Tesla’s stock dropped 7 percent on June 9 and June 10. Spokesman Bryan Thomas says NHTSA doesn’t have anything new to say about the Model S suspensions.
Leech, who continues to file Tesla complaints, also insists that SpaceX’s success in landing rockets back on earth is a hoax, videos of the landings notwithstanding. “People tell me I shouldn’t talk about the fake rockets,” he says, “because it makes me sound crazy.”
The bottom line: Elon Musk attracts a wide array of real and fake online antagonists criticizing his work on electric cars, rockets, and solar panels.