Musk’s Melts Down Over Thai Cave Rescue Criticism

Elon Musk (center) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry break ground on a new launch complex. (Credit: Texas Governor’s Office)

Days after promising to behave himself better on Twitter, Elon Musk had what was arguably his worst public meltdown yet on Sunday when he leveled a charge of pedophilia against a diver who had been instrumental in saving a Thai soccer team and its coach trapped in a flooded cave.

Musk made the charge — without providing any evidence —  against Vern Unsworth, a British diver who lives in Thailand, who last week criticized submarines that a team at Musk’s SpaceX built for the rescue effort as “just a PR stunt” that had “absolutely no chance of working” in the twisted confines of the cave.

Musk, who publicized every step of SpaceX’s rescue efforts on Twitter, made a 17-hour flight to Thailand with the submarines and walked for a distance into the cave. The billionaire made the stop on his way to China to make an announcement about plans to build a Tesla Motors manufacturing plant there.

In a series of Sunday morning tweets that have since been deleted, Musk not only disputed Unsworth claims but also called him a “pedo.”

Never saw this British expat guy who lives in Thailand (sus) at any point when we were in the caves. Only people in sight were the Thai navy/army guys, who were great. Thai navy seals escorted us in — total opposite of wanting us to leave.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 15, 2018

Water level was actually very low & still (not flowing) — you could literally have swum to Cave 5 with no gear, which is obv how the kids got in. If not true, then I challenge this dude to show final rescue video. Huge credit to pump & generator team. Unsung heroes here.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 15, 2018

You know what, don’t bother showing the video. We will make one of the mini-sub/pod going all the way to Cave 5 no problemo. Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 15, 2018

When a Twitter user criticized the “pedo” tweet, Musk doubled down. “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true,” he responded.

The video of Unsworth criticizing Musk’s involvement in the rescue had circulated for several days before the billionaire’s tweet storm. Musk was apparently set off by a tweet by Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina who wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times titled, “What Elon Musk Should Learn From the Thailand Cave Rescue“. In the op-ed, she wrote:

Mr. Musk’s desire to help was commendable. But when the head of the rescue operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, declared that Mr. Musk’s contraption was impractical for the task at hand — a task that had been completed, at that point, by some of the world’s top cave divers — Mr. Musk responded with irritation. He insisted on Twitter that leaders of the operation had in fact welcomed his assistance and that Mr. Narongsak was not the “subject matter expert.” He also expressed frustration that he was being criticized while trying to help.

Instead of venting, Mr. Musk — indeed, Silicon Valley as a whole — can perhaps see the Thai operation as a lesson. This was a most improbable rescue against the longest odds. Safely navigating 12 kids and one adult, many of whom were not swimmers, through a dangerous cave relied on a model of innovation that Silicon Valley can and should learn from.

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

Defenders of Musk have praised the billionaire’s effort to help with the cave rescue, saying he should not be criticized even though his proposed solution arrived too late to help and might not have worked.

In a Twitter thread, Tufekci wrote that the intervention of high-profile politicians and celebrities is often the last thing that rescue personnel need in a crisis.

I was once in the middle of an earthquake rescue with an amazing team. Politest people. Their lives on the line. Humble. Years later, I just don’t have words. Literally the biggest problem they faced was local officials, politicians & celebs who butted in. Even if well meaning.+

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

Officials pull/push actual rescuers. Sub as a back-up option (are people still working on it with domain experts?) is great to explore quietly, but the thing they fear is that an official comes and overrules the rescuers. Try this flashy thing! Happens to disastrous consequence.

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

We had someone important and famous land with a @#$@!! helicopter to the earthquake zone to “support our work and improve our morale.” At that point, we were working round the clock next to a burning refinery and the biggest challenge was establishing silence to listen for life.+

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

These rescuers I had been working, who were so humble, polite and expert—and who accepted everything and just worked and worked at great risk to themselves, climbing into rubble in the middle of 6.5+ aftershocks.. I learned more English curse words that day than since or before.+

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

I’ve too-long for Twitter stories on how hard it was to keep officials on track and from meddling wrongly. Anyway, the lesson I took is that publicity—even well-meaning—and anything flashy that officials might be attracted to during a rescue is dangerous. Many stories like that.+

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

Beyond the question of whether the submarines would have worked, the spat brings up more fundamental concerns about Musk’s behavior in recent months. During an earnings call for Tesla in May, Musk cut off analysts who he felt asked boring questions and turned most of the call over to a fan who praised him.

Musk has  also attacked Tesla critics, the media and individual reporters. He blocked this writer from following him on Twitter after receiving criticism of his actions.

Musk is not just a billionaire with a cult following, he is CEO of a public company in Tesla. As The Guardian reports, his recent outbursts have caused concerns among shareholders.

Musk has repeatedly come under fire for his behavior on Twitter and for Tesla’s PR strategy, under which it aggressively attacks critics and journalists. James Anderson, a partner at Baillie Gifford, Tesla’s fourth-largest shareholder, said in a recent Bloomberg interview the company needed a period of “peace and execution”, adding: “It would be good to just concentrate on the core task.”

Asked about the “pedo” tweet, Anderson told the Guardian in an email: “I intend to convey my – predictable I trust – feelings to the company tomorrow.” He declined to elaborate.

Musk had pledged to be less combative on social media, saying earlier this week: “I have made the mistaken assumption – and I will attempt to be better at this – of thinking that because somebody is on Twitter and is attacking me that it is open season. That is my mistake. I will correct it.”

Well, that didn’t age well. Baillie Gifford, by the way, owned 12.8 million shares of Tesla as of the end of March, which would be worth more than $4 billion at the current stock price.

Tesla has been struggling in recent months in trying to live up to promises Musk made about the company’s new Model 3 sedan. The company has repeatedly missed production deadlines while customers have reported serious quality control problems with their new vehicles.

Tesla is deeply in debt, with some critics predicting bankruptcy before the year is out. The company also faces an investigation into safety practices at its plant in Fremont, Calif.