I usually steer away from writing on certain topics here because…. heyyy, it’s Swarupa’s World – A wonderful world full of beauty, charm and adventure 🙂
But then, the ugly truth of today’s world need to be shared…
So the other day, I was reading about, what is believed to be, the first major defamation lawsuit brought by a private individual to go to trial over a tweet. Here’s the story…
Vernon Unsworth, 64, a British national who was part of the team coordinating the Tham Luang cave rescue in 2018, insulted Elon Musk, 48, the Tesla and SpaceX chief in July 13, 2018, CNN interview in which he said that Mr Musk’s offer of a mini-submarine to help rescue a boys’ soccer team from a flooded Thailand cave was a “PR stunt” and Mr Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts” (meaning stick his submarine up his a***). Elon Musk, who admitted that he had no idea who Mr Unsworth was at the time, responded by calling the British cave explorer “sus[picious]” and a “pedo guy” on Twitter.
Vernon Unsworth’s lawsuit focuses on three tweets of Mr Musk on July 15, 2018, five days after the diver helped complete the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from the cave. Mr Musk’s first tweet questioned Mr Unsworth’s role in the rescue, while the second said, “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.” The third tweet, in response to a follower who asked Mr Musk about the second tweet, said “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
Mr Unsworth said the tweets harmed his reputation by branding him a pedophile and a liar, and said they left him “humiliated, ashamed, dirtied.” His lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from Elon Musk.
The trial began this week on Tuesday morning, December 4, 2019 in a federal court in Los Angeles, California. The jury selection process itself demonstrated the extent of Elon Musk’s fame. The man is great! Numerous members of the jury pool disclosed business ties to Mr Musk’s various companies, which include Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company, Solar Power and Neuralink. Four potential jurors were Tesla owners. One man was dismissed when he said he could not be objective about the case because he is about to interview for a job with SpaceX, while two others were let go after admitting they followed Mr Musk on Twitter and knew about the details of the case. Only one potential juror, an aesthetician, admitted to having strong opinions about billionaires. She was dismissed. Another juror confessed to both “negative and positive” opinions about Mr Musk, and he was allowed to remain.
While the question asked is whether the internationally famous Elon Musk defamed the British cave explorer by calling him a “pedo guy”, the real issue is commonplace – the fragility of male egos. So Mr Musk’s attorney, Alex Spiro, in his opening statement to the jury rightly said, “This is a case about insults between two men.”
Elon Musk, who was questioned throughout the afternoon on Tuesday by Vernon Unsworth’s lawyer, apologized to Mr Unsworth, and stated to the jurors that the stress of working 80 to 100 hours a week during a challenging period for Tesla contributed to the outburst.
(An average stressed out guy hurls abuses at all & sundry for no reason, so just imagine, when he is insulted how ferocious he can get! Now, when a great guy like Elon Musk, who has so many important matters on his mind, gets insulted for the intense hard work and efforts that he and his team has put in within a short time, it’s highly doubtful that someone runs them down and gets away with it.)
Mr Musk’s primary defence, which he reiterated numerous times, was that he did not intend to call Mr Unsworth a pedophile, but instead was using “pedo guy” to mean “creepy old guy”.
“Just as I thought it was obvious that he did not mean to physically sodomize me with a submarine, I thought it was obvious that I didn’t mean he was a pedophile,” he said.
Mr Musk explained that he did not retract his statement when he initially apologized to Mr Unsworth because that “would have been worse”. “If you call someone a motherf****er, I think it would actually seem sarcastic to say, ‘I didn’t mean that he committed incest’,” Mr Musk clarified.
“That would have seemed disingenuous.” Mr Musk mentioned that Mr Unsworth’s riposte and his tweet were “equivalent insults”. He added, “Admittedly, this is not classy.”
Elon Musk downplayed his global influence, noting that he has “tried very hard to convince people to take climate change seriously” with limited effect, and that he has no publicist or PR team. The Tesla and SpaceX chief said that dozens, if not hundreds, of people on Twitter had prodded him to get involved with the weeks-long rescue effort of the stranded Thai football team and that the Thai prime minister had requested to meet him when he arrived in the country on his private plane.
(At that time, there were so many on Twitter requesting Elon Musk to help and rescue the boys. I was one of them. He was waiting for the Thai government’s request and on receiving it, he immediately went ahead with the miniature submarine design. Why just Thailand, in India too, whenever any kid falls into a borewell, people tweet to Elon Musk for his help in rescue operations. That’s the level of respect he commands around the world.)
“It was an unprovoked attack on a good-natured attempt to help the kids, and [Mr Unsworth] flat-out lied when he said we were asked to leave,” Mr Musk testified. “I was upset. It was wrong and insulting and so I insulted him back.”
In another moment of apparent self-awareness, he said: “There are a lot of things that I say. Not all of them have the same quality of thought. I would say very little at all if I just said sense.”
(And why do people expect Elon Musk to talk sense all the time? Everybody loves bullshitting now and then! Creative people have a bit of craziness in them.)
Social media sure is an expensive affair for international celebrities, sooner or later, they find themselves on the receiving end. During 2018, when Elon Musk used Twitter to float a leveraged buyout proposal for Tesla that was scuttled, it ultimately led to his paying $20 million to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint.
During the defamation trial, in his own testimony, Elon Musk dismissed his tweets as an “off the cuff” response to watching a replay of Mr Unsworth’s CNN interview, at a time he felt overworked from running Tesla, which makes electric cars, and SpaceX, a rocket company that offered the mini-submarine. Most importantly, Mr Musk apologized to the British cave explorer and said he did not believe the latter was a pedophile.
(Of course, since Elon Musk is a person of character, he apologized for his bad behaviour. Most of the time, the wronged person becomes the maligned one too.)
On the other hand, Mr Unsworth who insulted Mr Musk and made fun of his attempts to assist by building a miniature submarine refused to apologize to the international celebrity with a cult following. “Do you believe Mr Musk is so cold-hearted that he was sending over this sub with no regard for the children’s lives?” One of Mr Musk’s lawyers, Bill Price asked Mr Unsworth in a Los Angeles federal court on Thursday, the third day of trial. “Are you willing to apologize to Mr Musk for saying that it was just a PR stunt?”
(Not only did he refuse to apologize to Elon Musk and his team of engineers from SpaceX for insulting their hard work and efforts, he belittled them! Does he even know anything about SpaceX? The guys there are so damn intelligent!)
Mr Unsworth testified that his criticism of the Tesla chief that led to the tweet was not a personal attack. “My insult was to the tube and not to Mr Musk personally,” he said. “I’m not sure how I need to apologize. It was my opinion at the time and I stand by that opinion.”
(If he insulted the tube, he might as well apologize to the tube! That tube was created by Elon Musk and his team of engineers from SpaceX. Why are the Americans silent when a Britisher insults one of their esteemed companies?)
He testified about the impact of being “branded a pedophile” by Mr Musk’s tweets. “I feel humiliated, ashamed, dirty … I was effectively given a life sentence without parole.” Mr Unsworth’s lawyers argued that Mr Musk’s insult was a libellous allegation that resulted in “shame, mortification, worry and distress” to Mr Unsworth “during what should have been one of the proudest moments in his life”. But Unsworth’s claim of his reputation being sullied was refuted by Mr Musk’s lawyer who displayed a photo of Unsworth and other members of the British rescue team taken with PM Minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street. “You would agree that the prime minister of England would not want to be seen with someone who is a pedophile?” Price asked. Besides, Mr Unsworth had even tried to profit from his role in the rescue, which won him plaudits from the Thai and British governments.
After additional questioning over Unsworth’s claim to have suffered emotional distress over Musk’s words, it was established that Mr Unsworth had not mentioned such distress in many thousands of text messages exchanged over months with a half-dozen friends. The 64-year-old cave explorer had this to say: “I very rarely talk to my friends about my emotional issues, certainly not in text messages. I bottle it up.”
Further questions addressed Mr Unsworth’s involvement with various film and book projects about the cave rescue. Mr Unsworth said that he briefly engaged an agent and hoped to sell his story for a substantial sum, as others involved in the rescue have done. He did assist with three book projects for free, including a children’s book, and was paid a total of £2,600 ($3,400) for appearing in two documentaries, he said. Mr Unsworth works as a financial consultant and earns approximately £25,000 annually.
The jury also heard excerpts from a video deposition by Mr Unsworth’s wife, Vanessa Unsworth. The couple have been living separate lives since around 2006 but remain married. Vanessa testified that her husband was “really devastated” by Musk’s remark and said she was “incredibly proud” of his actions in the cave rescue. Asked about Unsworth’s criticism of Musk, she said: “It is a comment that, as Brits, we do say: ‘Stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.’”
(Geez, so whatever my husband said was perfectly fine, but what Elon Musk said was so terrible.)
Dr Jim Jansen, a professor of computer science at Penn State University, provided expert testimony for the plaintiffs on the “level of online dissemination” of Mr Musk’s “pedo guy” statement. Dr Jansen testified that 490 articles had appeared on 361 websites in 33 countries about Mr Musk’s remarks, based on searches limited to the English language and excluding articles about Mr Unsworth’s litigation.
To win his lawsuit, Mr Unsworth needs to prove that Mr Musk was negligent in publishing a falsehood that clearly identified him and caused him harm. He doesn’t need to prove that Mr Musk acted with “actual malice”, which is much tougher to prove.
The trial will continue on Friday morning with closing arguments and jury instructions, after which the jury will deliberate. That is today.
All the best, Elon Musk. You made mistakes, but you apologized. Nobody is perfect. People have short-term memories, but Karma is ever-watchful and never forgets to deliver. This post is just an assurance, if those showing poor qualities are going to run you down…I got your back! Most importantly, stay fit, healthy and positive 😉
P.S. I’m happy to share that Elon Musk won the defamation lawsuit filed against him by the British cave explorer. Congratulations, Elon Musk 😀
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