Fake news galvanized US president-elect Donald Trump’s supporters, and sullied his enemies. Now it may be Elon Musk’s turn.
The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has his fair share of detractors, but a new era in a public relations battle to discredit him appears to be taking shape. Bloomberg reports that hard-right groups are lining up to back misleading websites and fake journalists who attack Musk’s business empire.
Many of the attacks on Musk begin with something factual: His businesses were built, legally, with the help of billions in government contracts and incentives for renewable energy and space transport. But they go on to accuse Musk of fraud and wasting taxpayer dollars; some compare him to a convicted felon. At least three conservative sites have run negative pieces about Musk—by a nonexistent writer named “Shepard Stewart”—that include “Elon Musk Continues to Blow Up Taxpayer Money With Falcon 9” and “Elon Musk: Faux Free Marketeer and National Disgrace.” Two later retracted the stories.
“There’s a very obvious precedent” for this, says Sam Jaffe, managing director of Cairn Energy Research Advisors. “That’s Hillary Clinton.”
Jaffe says that whoever is behind the attacks is aiming at Musk personally because they fear he could go into politics. He cited the allegations of fraud (emails) and negligence (Benghazi) levied at Clinton during the presidential campaign, charges that cemented the public’s perception of her as shady. “It’s the exact same thing as Musk. There’s a portion of the political spectrum that is scared to death of Musk as politician. They see him as a threat. They’re starting that process.”
One anti-Musk website—”Stop Elon From Failing Again” launched earlier this year with the mission of becoming a “one-stop database on stopping Elon Musk.” The site combines news aggregated from mainstream sources with pickups from conservative think tanks, plus some of its own posts. It’s backed by the Citizens for the Republic political action committee, which is led by Laura Ingraham, a right-wing radio host currently under consideration for White House press secretary. One of the site’s most recent pieces, produced by the conservative Heritage Foundation, compared Musk to “Enron and Bernie Madoff.” The site did not respond to a request for comment.
Musk’s SpaceX, which competes with the Boeing- and Lockheed Martin-backed United Launch Alliance, was also targeted this year. The website “Who Is Elon Musk?” produced a stream of stories critical of SpaceX and Musk, just as the former was being considered for government contracts. Bloomberg could not locate the organization behind the site, The Center for Business and Responsible Government, and a United Launch Alliance spokesperson declined to comment.
For his part, Musk seems to be taking it all in stride. He took to Twitter this week to solicit tips on authors’ identities, referencing a notorious online troll from Comedy Central cartoon South Park.