Elon Musk came under fire on Sunday after launching an extraordinary attack on a British diver who helped rescue the boys trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand, baselessly calling him a “pedo” on Twitter and then doubling down.
Twelve boys and their football coach were rescued from the Tham Luang cave complex by an international team and after a week of intense drama.
The chief executive of the tech giant Tesla offered to assist the rescue mission by providing a submarine. The request was turned down. Musk lashed out on Sunday, saying he would make a video proving that his “mini-sub” would have been successful and adding: “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.”
The accusation, presented without evidence or context, was directed at Vern Unsworth, a British cave explorer who recently said Musk’s attempt to help the rescue effort was a “PR stunt”. No evidence has emerged to substantiate Musk’s claim of pedophilia.
“It just had absolutely no chance of working,” Unsworth said in a widely shared interview. “He had no conception of what the cave passage was like. The submarine, I believe, was about 5ft 6in long, rigid, so it wouldn’t have gone round corners or round any obstacles.”
Musk visited the cave system himself. Unsworth said the billionaire “was asked to leave very quickly”. He also told CNN Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts”.
On Sunday, when a Twitter user pointed out that Musk was “calling the guy who found the children a pedo”, the billionaire responded: “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
Intense criticism followed. Some Twitter users pointed out how “dangerous” and irresponsible it was to make such a serious allegation and to broadcast a potentially libelous insult to his 22 million followers.
Spokesmen for Musk and Tesla did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Later on Sunday, Musk deleted the “pedo” tweet and its follow-up.
Unsworth could not immediately be reached.
Some users reported Musk’s comments to Twitter, one saying he “shouldn’t be allowed to use Twitter to unleash [his] followers on people like this”.
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.”
The billionaire attracted controversy for his approach to the Thai rescue after Narongsak Osatanakorn, head of the joint command center, said the mini-submarine would not have been practical.
Musk responded by saying Osatanakorn was “not the subject matter expert” and that he had been “inaccurately described as rescue chief” and should have been labeled the “former Thai provincial governor”. Osatanakorn stepped down as Chiang Rai governor during the rescue, but was still acting as commander.
Musk’s Sunday tweets came in response to a New York Times opinion piece entitled “What Elon Musk Should Learn From the Thailand Cave Rescue”. The Tesla CEO appears to be committed to proving his design would have worked. He wrote: “We will make [a video] of the mini-sub/pod going all the way to Cave 5 no problemo.”
He also responded to one critic who had called the submarine idea “absurd” a week earlier, writing: “Stay tuned jackass.” That tweet too was deleted.
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