Did the man who’s reimagining space exploration just accuse the man who ran a wonderful and miraculous rescue a pedophile? The saga of this year’s best story, the extraction of twelve boys and their coach from a Thailand cave, had a bizarre coda over the weekend. Elon Musk created a rescue capsule to help bring the boys out after his fans challenged him to stretch technology to save their lives, only to be told that the capsule would be impractical in this particular cave system.
British spelunker Vernon Unsworth, who helped locate and rescue the soccer team, later called Musk’s arrival at the end “just a PR stunt,” adding that “he can stick his submarine where it hurts”:
And that’s when it started to get weird:
He said he had not seen Unsworth — whom he dismissed as “this British expat guy who lives in Thailand” — during his brief guided tour of the cave system and suggested that, therefore, Unsworth had not actually participated in the rescue operation. (Unsworth absolutely and crucially had, per CNN.)
According to CNN, Unsworth had spent years exploring this particular cave system and the way the waters moved through it. Thai authorities turned to him immediately to consult on locating the boys and extracting them; his first guess at their location was only off by 200 meters in the miles-long system. Unsworth brought in the outside resources that planned and executed the rescue with Thai SEALs. He spent more than two weeks in this intense operation, which might explain why he was more than a little put off when an amateur showed up at the last minute and disrupted their plans.
Musk didn’t see it that way, and lashed out in a very strange manner:
Furthermore, Musk insisted that his submarine (designed in consultation with “cave experts on the Internet,” he wrote) would have worked. He bragged that he would one day pilot it through the now child-free cave system as proof.
And midway through his rant, for some inexplicable reason, he accused Unsworth of sex crimes.
“Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it,” Musk wrote, clarifying in a follow-up tweet that he meant “the Brit expat diver” was a pedophile.
Generally confused, some Twitter followers guessed that Musk was dubiously linking Unsworth (who has been mapping the Tham Luang caves for a decade) with Thailand’s epidemic of child-sex tourism.
“Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true,” Musk wrote late Sunday morning, a few hours before he deleted his tweets — too late to avoid yet another deluge of public criticism.
What. The. Actual. Hell? Put aside the corrosive nature of social media as a contributing cause for a moment and consider that Elon Musk is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of this age. The man is literally rewriting space travel at the moment and has all the money he’ll ever need in life if he retires now. Does he have such thin skin that a little ridicule causes this kind of reaction? Talk about thin skinned. Maybe Musk should take some time off Twitter and count a few of his blessings.
Musk might also need some time to count out his dollars. Unsworth was not amused by the billionaire’s claim that he is a sexual predator, and told AFP that legal action will likely commence — just as soon as he recovers from the exhaustion of the rescue:
Unsworth told AFP on Monday he had not reviewed the tweets in full and had only heard about them.
But asked if he would take legal action against Musk over the allegation, Unsworth said: “If it’s what I think it is yes.”
The caver said he would make a decision when he flies back to the UK this week, but added that the episode with Musk “ain’t finished”.
Does he have a case? Almost certainly, especially in the UK, where slander and libel laws are particularly harsh and no formal First Amendment concerns apply. Even in the US, Musk would probably lose this case once it got to a jury. On one hand, they would have a man who just dedicated two weeks to the world’s most celebrated rescue, succeeding beyond anyone’s hopes, and on the other a billionaire industrialist with a bruised ego who twice called the hero a pedophile for belittling him. Unsworth wouldn’t likely be considered a public person, which makes a finding of liability in a slander/libel case easier. Even if Unsworth was a public person, a finding of actual malice in this case wouldn’t be all that big of a reach, not with Musk tossing “pedo” around without any justification other than the country in which Unsworth works. Good luck on invoking Sullivan on this one, Elon.
If Musk is smart, he’ll make an offer to settle the issue. Or at least issue a retraction and apology rather than just delete the tweets. That would be a good start on shrinking the eventual cost of this temper tantrum, and Musk could then get back to what he does best — reimagining the future.