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No, the viral ‘defend billionaires’ Elon Musk billboard isn’t real

The billboard is a piece of digital art by someone who regularly creates conceptual advertisements with anti-billionaire messages.
Credit: Modulo.18 - stock.adobe.com

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, billionaire Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s estimated wealth has increased by over $100 billion to make him the second wealthiest person in the United States.

So, when someone posted a photo of an Elon Musk billboard that said “Defend billionaires. We’re just like you,” the post went viral with thousands of retweets and likes off the backs of people making fun of what they assumed to be a genuine billboard by Musk. But others in the replies questioned if the tone-deaf billboard was actually real.

THE QUESTION

Is this a real billboard of Elon Musk telling people to defend billionaires?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No. The image was created as a piece of resistance art by a person who regularly posts similar pieces to their Instagram.

WHAT WE FOUND

The billboard was first posted online by Instagram account 3chordpolitics on May 18. There are clues to the inauthenticity of the billboard in that original post.

The artist behind the account, Martin Sprouse, included a "conceptual art" hashtag alongside hashtags for "resistance art" and "visual art" within the post itself. In the comments, one user let the artist know that the image was posted to Twitter “and everyone thinks it’s an earnest defense of billionaires.” Sprouse replied “that’s hilarious” to the person.

After the Elon Musk billboard went viral, Sprouse posted a second billboard with the same message to his Instagram, this one featuring Jeff Bezos. The same hashtags are present in the more recent post, and neither the Jeff Bezos billboard nor the Elon Musk billboard include a location.

But that’s because the billboards aren’t real. Sprouse regularly posts digital art in the style of advertisements to his 22,000 followers. The art, as his account name suggests, is always political in nature and the advertisements either directly share his beliefs or are meant to replicate the beliefs of high-profile figures as critiques. He’s posted art critical of billionaires and capitalism, such as the viral Elon Musk billboard, as well as art critical of Democrats, Republicans and police since he made his first post on Jan. 1, 2019.

It’s unclear if this specific billboard is a real one he edited his art onto or if the entire billboard was edited into an unrelated photo. He has used photos of real billboards for his art before, but those posts included references to the original billboards and their locations, as well as a "hijack" hashtag. There are websites that make it easy to create mockups of billboards in fake locations, as well as a plethora of stock images for the same purpose, but a search of the Getty and Adobe stock libraries failed to find a source for the billboards.

Reverse image searches on Google, Bing, Yandex and TinEye did not reveal an original image. Searches that blocked out the content of the billboard only returned results to the fake viral Musk billboard.

At the very least, the image of Musk isn't new. That photo comes from the cover of the November 2018 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. Musk has never used the image for his own promotions since that magazine released. 

On the about page of his design firm, Sprouse says his immersion within the punk rock scene have included “the publishing of books, fanzines, and graphic arts projects.” When an Arizona skating brand announced a collaboration with Sprouse in 2019, it said, “Martin is setting the Instagram world on fire with his blunt, in your face, graphics which he cultivated into style all his own.”

VERIFY

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