Fact check: Billboard of Elon Musk saying ‘defend billionaires’ isn’t real

The claim: A billboard featuring Elon Musk says, “Defend billionaires. We’re just like you.”

An image of Tesla Founder and CEO Elon Musk on a billboard has gained traction on Facebook for a purportedly tone-deaf message about billionaires.

“Defend billionaires. We’re just like you,” the billboard says next to a photo of Musk, the second-richest person in the world.

On Facebook, a screenshot of a tweet with the photo has been shared more than 5,000 times since it was posted June 11. The author of the tweet, which has more than 3,900 retweets, shared the image with the caption, “Spotted in the wild.”

A reverse image search indicates the billboard is not real. It was created by a designer who publishes digital art on Instagram.

USA TODAY reached out to social media users who shared the image for comment.

Image posted by designer on Instagram

The image has been shared across most social media platforms, including Reddit and Tumblr. But it doesn’t show a real billboard.

The earliest version of the image USA TODAY found was posted on Instagram on May 18 by user Martin Sprouse.

Sprouse is a designer based in California, according to his design firm’s “About” page. His firm focuses on designing furniture for commercial and residential environments.

Tesla's CEO Elon Musk has told The Wall Street Journal he's moved to Texas because California has 'taken innovators for granted.' (Photo: Getty)

But his work on Instagram, where he has more than 22,000 followers, uses digital art to draw attention to politics and national affairs, including police brutality, race and immigration.

The hashtags Sprouse used on the post — #visualart, #conceptualart and #instagraphic — hint that the image doesn’t show a real billboard.

When one user commented on the post that “someone posted this on Twitter and everyone thinks it’s an earnest defense of billionaires,” Sprouse responded: “That’s hilarious.”

This is not the first time Sprouse has shared political messages as if they were real.

Most recently, a similar image of Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos on a billboard included the same message as the image of Musk: “Defend billionaires. We’re just like you.” 

On May 28, the day Senate Republicans blocked the creation of a bipartisan commission to study the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Sprouse posted an image of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with a quote attributed to him.

“F— Democracy,” the quote says. 

USA TODAY didn’t find any record of McConnell saying that.

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Some users who have commented on Sprouse’s posts claim he shares satirical content, but there are no disclaimers on his profile or on the posts.

USA TODAY reached out to Musk’s press team and Sprouse for comment.

Our rating: False

We rate the claim that a billboard featuring Elon Musk says, “Defend billionaires. We’re just like you,” FALSE, based on our research. The image was originally posted on Instagram by a designer whose digital art often generates misinformation about public figures. USA TODAY found no evidence such a billboard exists.

Our fact-check sources:

  • User @patriach2051, June 9, tweet
  • EnoughMuskSpam, June 10, Reddit thread: “Defend Billionaires,” but un-ironically
  • User Quovadis Jasen, June 11, Tumblr post
  • Martin Sprouse, May 18, Instagram post
  • Martin Sprouse, accessed June 15, Martin Sprouse “About”
  • Martin Sprouse, accessed June 15, @3chordpolitics
  • Martin Sprouse, June 12, Instagram post
  • Martin Sprouse, May 28, Instagram post
  • USA TODAY, May 28, Senate Republicans block commission to study Capitol riot of Jan. 6
  • USA TODAY, May 21, Chances of 9/11-style panel for Capitol riots grow distant as several GOP senators voice concerns

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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