They say that any publicity is good publicity, but is that still true when you're being targeted by false media coverage? Such is the case with tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, who seems to be the target of an ongoing campaign of derogatory news and opinion pieces, all written by people hiding behind fake aliases.
Musk has risen over the last three years to become one of the tech industry's most exciting and controversial figures, due to his various unique and disruptive innovations, such as electric cars, space rockets, solar panels and battery technology, as well as his outspoken views about colonising Mars, science and the future.
An increasing number of conservative-leaning websites and online magazines are posting opinion pieces with provocative headlines, like "Here's How Elon Musk Stole $5 Billion in Taxpayer Dollars" on Libertarian Republic, "Elon Musk: Faux Free Marketeer and National Disgrace" on Liberty Conservative and "Elon Musk Continues to Blow Up Taxpayer Money With Falcon 9" on the Federalist.
Shadowy trolls using fake names
All of these articles have one thing in common – they've been written by one man, a journalist called "Shepard Stewart". However, the funny thing is that this person doesn't exist. He is merely an alias used to write condemning articles about Musk, and he's just one of many fake writers on multiple websites supported by unknown backers hidden in the shadows that all seem to have a sinister agenda.
Many of these online attacks build on a platform of publicly available facts, such as the acknowledgement that Musk built his businesses with billions of dollars of funding from the US government – all provided legally as a result of either winning a bid on a government contract, or as incentives to research and develop technologies for space transport and renewable energy.
But the pieces take it a step further, accusing Musk of fraud and even comparing him to convicted felons, such as a website called Who Is Elon Musk?, which criticises the work of SpaceX and accuses Musk of "lining the pockets of Democratic and Republican politicians with millions of dollars in donations" (an untrue fact, according to non-profit research group Center for Responsive Politics, which says that Musk has only given $515,000 in total to politicians and political groups since 2003).
Some of the critical articles on this site were published most frequently during spring 2016, when the Boeing–Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance (ULA) was lobbying Congress to let it buy Russian-made rocket engines. SpaceX strongly objected, but in the end ULA got its way.
Tesla maintains that the articles are untrue and ULA won't comment, but Bloomberg reports that the people backing the sites that run these pieces are far-right groups who fear that Musk could one day turn his attention to conquering the political world.
Maybe they're all just jealous?
Of course, some of the hate Musk receives could just be down to plain old jealousy. A website called Stop Elon From Failing Again is sponsored by a conservative advocacy group called Citizens for the Republic, which told Bloomberg that it is singling out the tech entrepreneur particularly because "he is the epitome of a businessman who gets subsidy after subsidy he doesn't need".
Interestingly, the leader of Citizens for the Republic is Laura Ingraham, a right wing radio host who is apparently now under consideration to become the White House press secretary.
As for that mysterious writer "Stewart", when quizzed about his identity, the Liberty Conservative admitted that they realised he wasn't a real person because after the site published his article, "Stewart" stopped responding to the publication, and when they investigated, they discovered that the profile picture he was using online was in fact the headshot of a former Twitter executive that had been digitally altered.
Musk seems to be trying to see the funny side of the situation, although he'd clearly love to know who is behind the multitude of derogatory accusations currently being aimed in his direction.
"Can anyone uncover who is really writing these fake pieces? Can't be skankhunt42. His work is better than this," Musk wrote on Twitter on 22 November, sharing the Bloomberg piece and referencing the infamous internet troll that features on the latest series of satirical cartoon South Park.