The Elon Musk 'pedo guy' verdict shows Twitter and the courts don't prioritize the truth

There’s one kind of justice for wealthy people, which is swift and reasonably fair; there is another for poor people, which is neither.
Image: Defamation Lawsuit Against Tesla CEO Elon Musk Over Calling British Rescue Diver "'Pedo Guy" And Rapist Begins In Los Angeles
Elon Musk leaves U.S. District Court, Central District of California, through a back door in Los Angeles on Dec. 3, 2019.Apu Gomes / Getty Images
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By Sam Thielman

Elon Musk, the inventor of rockets that explode on the landing pad and automated cars that drive into the sides of tractor trailers, has prevailed in court against Vernon Unsworth, a British man living in Thailand who was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Prince William for his part in rescuing 12 schoolboys from a flooded cave. Unsworth sued Musk for baselessly slurring him on Twitter as a pedophile, an accusation he repeated in detail in an email to Buzzfeed in which he claimed that Unsworth had taken a preteen “child bride” — also a lie. The judge in the case cited the email as contradictory evidence to Musk’s claim that he was merely engaged in idle trash talk when he refused to dismiss the case.

Musk testified in court that he had called Unsworth a pedophile on Twitter as a mere insult, not to be taken literally, because he was upset that Unsworth had called Musk’s unproven miniature submarine — made from rocket parts which had not yet exploded — that was supplied to the rescue effort (which declined it) an obviously unworkable solution and a public relations stunt.

Twitter’s place in all this is very odd: At its best, the platform can seem like a proletarian system designed to expose privileged people to the opinions and expressions of the hoi polloi. But when it comes to real world conflict, Twitter is actually a generator of interesting tidbits for a legal discovery process in which the winner is often determined purely by his or her means — in other words, it's a source of weaponizable information against vulnerable people, and/or a means of distributing that information.

The illusion of agency that Twitter gives to people without any other means of addressing injustice is valuable; the platform’s inadvertent demonstration of the limits of the truth is, if nothing else, educational.

The lawsuit against Musk (“I f------ hope he sues me,” Musk wrote the Buzzfeed reporter, Ryan Mac) went to a jury trial, an oddity in the world of defamation suits; defamation is notoriously difficult to successfully prosecute in the United States because our court system demands that the plaintiff prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused intended to harm her or him. Plaintiffs usually settle.

In court, Musk claimed that when he had called Unsworth “pedo guy” in a tweet, it was a general term used widely in South Africa that just meant “creepy dude,” — this statement surprised South Africans — and that, when he paid a private investigator $50,000 to investigate whether Unsworth really was a pedophile and then repeated the claims of the investigator (who turned out to be a con artist and convicted felon), Musk had simply been hoodwinked by an unscrupulous opportunist.

None of this passes the smell test, obviously. Musk likes to shoot his mouth off on Twitter — to the distress of the many, many people who have given him money to do things like drill tunnels underneath Los Angeles to alleviate traffic congestion and colonize Mars (both pending). When he tweeted the “pedo guy” smear, Tesla’s stock dropped by 4 percent and his staff urged him to apologize; Musk declined, according to documents presented to the court in which he told his assistant Sam Teller that “my apology would simply have been dismissed as a disingenuous and cowardly attempt to restore the stock price.” A few days later, he tweeted a halfhearted apology-adjacent statement “to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as leader.”

It is hard to imagine a more disingenuous and cowardly course of action than the one Musk took, though it is one that did not require him to admit acting out of spite and unwarranted self-regard, and one that did not require that he or his presumptive insurers pay any of his millions of dollars to a 64-year-old rescue worker who had just saved a dozen children from drowning.

All’s well that ends well: Unsworth will return to relative obscurity, and Musk has returned to playing himself on cartoon sitcoms and breaking the unbreakable windows in his truck.

Musk is worth about $20 billion by his own reckoning; other accountings put that number even higher. He is reckoned by Forbes to be the 40th-richest man in the world; 29 million people follow him on Twitter. He made tens of millions off the sale of PayPal, which merged with his old company X.com and then sold to eBay, from which Musk made between $160 million and $180 million. I don’t say that it’s easy to make $160 million into $20 billion, but it’s a better starting point than whatever Vernon Unsworth has.

You can express any harmful lie you like, it seems, if you’re a billionaire … unless it’s going cost other rich people money. After all, 23 days after the “pedo guy” tweet, Musk again took to Twitter to facetiously announce that he was “considering taking Tesla private at $420.”

“Funding secured,” he added. (This, he explained later, was not a serious business plan. It was probably just a weed joke, possibly to impress his girlfriend.)

The controversy over the subsequent stock inflation and collapse did not drag out for a year and five months, the way the Unsworth insult had; it did not even rise to the level of controversy. Musk was swiftly investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and stripped of his chairmanship of Tesla; Tesla was forced to appoint two independent directors to its board and hire a lawyer to keep an eye on Musk’s tweets; and the company and Musk himself had to pay $20 million apiece to be “distributed to harmed investors.” The whole incident had been efficiently dealt with by law enforcement by the end of the succeeding month.

There’s one kind of justice for conflict between wealthy people, which is swift, reasonably fair, and sensible; there is another kind for conflict between wealthy people and poor people, which is absurd and cruel, and unfailingly takes the side of the rich.

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