In September, 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 had appeared on a piece on the Libertarian Republic website called "Here's How Elon Musk Stole $5 Billion in Taxpayer Dollars." And 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."
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.
Musk inspires strong admiration and criticism for his industry-disrupting companies: Tesla; SolarCity, a solar panel installer; and Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, the rocket company he founded and heads.
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, DC, communications firm. Walsh ticks off coal companies and utilities uneasy about SolarCity and carmakers and dealers concerned about Tesla. Walsh's firm worked for United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and helped persuade Congress to let it 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 US$515,000 to politicians and political groups since 2003, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics, a non-profit 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."
He is the epitome of a businessman who gets subsidy after subsidy he doesn't need.
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The site identifies its sponsor as the Centre for Business and Responsible Government, "a nonpartisan organisation dedicated to highlighting cronyism and its effects on American taxpayers and policy." But there's no trace of the centre anywhere online, nor in the bricks-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 (CFTR). 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 organisation 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.
One online antagonist allegedly tried the bizarre approach of impersonating Musk in pursuit of inside information about Tesla.
In August, Tesla's chief financial officer, Jason Wheeler, received an email from ElonTesla@yahoo.com requesting more detailed non-public 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.
People tell me I shouldn't talk about the fake rockets, because it makes me sound crazy.
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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 email, Katz, who has 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 describes himself as "a bit of an obsessive."
Leech has 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 has 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 complaints. He says he recently bought Tesla puts, another way to bet on a company's stock dropping.
Leech says he has never driven a Tesla.
In June, a car website called the Daily Kanban reported on the suspension complaints, igniting broader coverage. Also in June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 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 complaints were "fraudulent" and that "one or more people sought to create the false impression of a safety issue."
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."
According to online attackers, Elon Musk:
• Is a 'Faux Free Marketeer and National Disgrace' '
• Gets subsidy after subsidy he doesn't need'
• Is an 'American Swindler'
• 'Stole $5 Billion in Taxpayer Dollars'