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Elon Musk tries to explain Twitter in ‘pedo guy’ defamation case

The defamation trial started today

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge | Photo by Joshua Lott / Getty Images

There were so many lawyers, and they were all wearing nondescript suits in blue or gray that are cut badly in the upper arm area. I have seen many shapes and styles of shoulder pads, all of them bad. I have seen an improbable amount of hair gel. I have seen loafers, flimsy and sturdy. I have seen, among the trial’s observers, a man wearing two sets of glasses, one over the other, presumably to avoid having to buy bifocals. The best-dressed people in the room are in the jury, and it’s not close. (The jury has been instructed not to read the press, so it’s not like I’m sucking up here.) 

The Honorable Stephen Wilson, in explaining the case, tells the fortyish prospective jurors that Elon Musk “posted a series of tweets on his Twitter” very sincerely, a statement that had been tediously ironed out with both sets of lawyers the day before.  None of them, apparently, viewed “posted tweets on his Twitter” as a howler; but first of all, “tweeted” is a fine strong verb. Second, where else would Musk post his tweets if not his Twitter account — Facebook?

We are convened because Elon Musk, following in the footsteps of American icon Courtney Love, has been sued for Twitter defamation. The claim was brought by Vernon Unsworth, who helped rescue a boys’ soccer team and their coach from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in Thailand. 

a submarine would probably hurt in plenty parts of one’s body if enough pressure were applied

It’s… a little convoluted but the basic facts are these: the soccer team became an international media frenzy straight out of Ace in the Hole after they were reported missing on June 23rd, 2018. After initially telling a Twitter rando that “I suspect that the Thai govt has this under control, but I’m happy to help if there is a way to do so,” Musk commandeered several SpaceX engineers to build a mini-sub. They then brought the sub to Thailand in the hopes of assisting the rescue operation. By the time Musk arrived in Thailand with the submarine on July 9, eight of the 13 people trapped in the cave had been rescued.

After they had all been rescued, Unsworth went on CNN. He’d assisted with the rescue since the beginning, on June 24th, and suggested that the Thai government contact world-class cave divers. Unsworth was not feeling charitable about Musk’s contributions, calling the sub a “PR stunt” with “absolutely no chance of working.” Also, he said Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.” For some reason, everyone who has spoken so far, including Musk, construes this as “stick it up his ass” though a submarine would probably hurt in plenty parts of one’s body if enough pressure were applied. An armpit, for instance. A belly button.

Musk testified that he watched the CNN clip on Twitter “two or three times” before sending the tweets that brought everyone into the courtroom today. He said he’d show that the submarine could navigate the caves. He capped off the three-tweet rant with “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.” 

It is the “pedo guy” that appears to be the crux of the case. The jury will decide if the tweets count as recklessly negligent. 

O jury, where art thou?

But first we had to find a jury. Four people said they were Tesla owners — one of whom specified that he had an old-school Roadster, one of whom said they had both an X and an S — but this would not impair their judgment. Three people had connections — as contractors or shareholders — with SpaceX or Boring Company, but were similarly confident about their judgment. One prospective juror said that he had an upcoming job interview with SpaceX and could not be impartial. He was excused. Two other jurors were excused because they followed Musk on Twitter. 

After the bulk questions, eight prospective jurors were called into the box and questioned individually. These people were asked more specific questions about whether they were related to any lawyers, what their spouses and kids did and whether they had any “strong opinion, whether negative or positive, about whether someone is a billionaire.” Most people answered no; an aesthetician who answered “yes” was excused. Only one prospective juror indicated he had strong opinions — “both negative and positive” — about Musk. He ended up on the jury.

A turd in the punch bowl

Then it was time for opening statements. Taylor Wilson, a partner at L. Lin Wood and a lawyer for the plaintiff, put up a chart I couldn’t see with a lot of dates on it. (The chart was aimed at the jury and would continue to obscure my view all day.) He then walked through the dates of the basic action around the tweets with the energy of a nervous middle schooler doing a monologue at the school play. Not only did Musk call Unsworth a “pedo guy,” Wilson pointed out, when Kevin Beaumont sarcastically called the tweet “classy,” Musk replied “bet you a signed dollar it’s true.” (The “signed dollar” tweet has also been deleted.)

Musk apologized on July 17, but that wasn’t the end of it. Wilson rather irritably told the court that despite the apology, Musk did not retract his “worldwide accusation on Twitter” that Unsworth was a pedophile. Wilson then told the court that Musk’s family office retained a PI to look into Unsworth and on August 28th, instructed the investigator to leak negative information to the press. (It would later emerge that the PI was, in fact, a con man.)

There were a few other subsequent events Wilson brought up to show that Musk must have been serious about calling Unsworth a pedophile: a reply to Drew Olanoff saying “you don’t think it’s strange he [Unsworth] hasn’t sued me?” and an email to BuzzFeed News reporter Ryan Mac where Musk called Unsworth a “child rapist.”

Musk was accusing Unsworth “of being a pedophile during what should have been the proudest moment of his life,” Wilson said. In other words, according to Wilson, Musk metaphorically shat in the punch bowl.

An argument between two men

In response, Alex Spiro — a former assistant district attorney with a real Miles Teller vibe, who is now a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and has represented Jay-Z — rose to give an opening statement from the defense. This was an argument between two men, he noted extremely correctly. He suggested that the plaintiff’s lawyers were changing the context on the exchange.

He set the stage on the Thailand thing differently. See, life and death hung in the balance. Naturally, the solution was hero engineers. (At this point, my notes read: “Spiro speaks better than Wilson but this defense is deeply goofy.”) Spiro rather dramatically told the courtroom “Thank God the pod was never needed.” He then pointed out that no one on the engineering team sat for an interview or took any money for their efforts.

Spiro then made the argument that “stick the sub where it hurts” was understood as a colloquialism. He notes that Unsworth incorrectly said in his CNN interview that Musk was asked to leave the cave, and that it was only Unsworth’s opinion that the minisub didn’t work. (I am now hoping for some extremely petty video evidence about whether or not the minisub works, which is possibly the least important part of this entire debacle.) According to Spiro, the hurtful part was calling Musk’s efforts a publicity stunt.

There are two basic mistakes to make on the internet, and Musk would proceed to make both of them

There are two basic mistakes to make on the internet, and Musk would proceed to make both of them. The first is to do a Google search in lieu of actual research, and Musk — immediately after seeing the video — did this. Through Google, Musk determined that Unsworth lived in Chiang Rai province in Thailand; an article somewhere named the province as a significant area of child sex trafficking.

From there, Musk proceeded to make the second mistake, which is to tweet. Armed with his Google knowledge, Musk called Unsworth a “pedo guy.” Spiro maintained that it was a “fill-in-the-blank insult” and that the Google search was just to determine an effective way to insult Unsworth. “These tweets are not allegations of crimes,” Spiro said. “They are joking, taunting tweets in a fight between men.”

Spiro then coined the worst acronym I’ve heard in years, and I edit stories about aerospace so I know from bad acronyms. It is: JDART, for joking, deleted, apologized-for, responsive tweets. See, because the tweets were in response to the CNN interview. 

As for the later statements — which could be construed as doubling down — and the hiring of the PI, Spiro said that Musk was simply trying to get information because a lawsuit was imminent. (Truth is a defense against a defamation claim.) 

Spiro then proceeded to question whether Unsworth was as upset as he claimed; after all, he’d been featured in GQ’s Men of the Year, received an award from the United Kingdom’s Queen (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a name in extremely questionable taste for an award as empires are currently out of fashion), and was honored by the King of Thailand.

Then, mercifully, we broke for lunch. 

Musk takes the stand

After I ate two Cliff Bars sitting outside the courtroom, Musk showed up to testify in a positively funereal black suit and blue-gray tie, flanked by security guards. L. Lin Wood, a Philip Seymour Hoffman character who somehow got loose from the bounds of cinema and showed up in reality, handled the cross-examination. Wood was possessed of a certain oleaginous charm and generally bumbling manner, which belied the work he’d done on behalf of clients like Herman Cain, JonBenet Ramsey’s parents, and Richard Jewell, who was named as a suspect in the 1996 Olympic bombing before being cleared.

“There’s anything on Twitter.”

Anyway Wood began by asking about Twitter dot com. I live for this.

It rapidly became apparent that whatever pretrial prep Wood has done is insufficient for him to understand the Nature of Posting. Wood explained that before 2018, Musk knew that his Twitter account was used in part to convey factual information. It is. It is also used for Ambien tweets, reflections on anime, rumormongering, and fantasies about a volcanic lair. People on Twitter can assert anything that comes to mind, Musk said, “true, untrue, half-true. It’s where people engage in verbal combat. There’s anything on Twitter.”

Wood spent a great deal of time asking very similar-sounding questions. It is possible Wood did this because he’s rusty at trial; it is possible it was a deliberate strategy to make Musk lose his temper. It’s possible there is some reason I am not thinking of. Through most of the following, Musk sat with his arms crossed and resting on the table in front of him.

Wood attempted to establish that Musk is influential. Musk wasn’t having it. “I’m not sure to the degree I’m actually influential,” Musk said. Wood tried again: Musk is recognized as the pioneer who wants to take people to Mars. “I’m influential in the domains of climate change and rockets,” Musk admitted. “But this doesn’t mean I can change someone’s opinion in other areas.” 

“There are a lot of things I say and not all of them have the same quality of thought.”

As a person who speaks publicly, though, Musk surely must know the value of choosing his words carefully, Wood suggested. At that point it occurred to me that Wood had probably never seen a Musk press event — for instance, the Neuralink one earlier this year where Musk shocked his own team by revealing that “a monkey has been able to control a computer with its brain” using that tech. “There are a lot of things I say and not all of them have the same quality of thought,” Musk said, in what was likely the understatement of the decade.

Wood seemed to switch tacks, going through old emails to establish a timeline for Musk’s work on the submarine. Musk says that at first he thought his help wasn’t needed, but then after a Thai Navy Seal died and reports of an imminent monsoon, he figured “it would be on my conscience forever” if he didn’t take action. Musk walked through the details of getting in touch with Rick Stanton, who coordinated the operation, doing what essentially amounted to a hackathon with his engineers, then flying to Thailand to drop off the sub. Musk sent his team ahead while he met with the Thai prime minister, then took the sub to the Navy Seals, headed into the cave to the dive point, posted a photo from the cave on Twitter, then left for his hotel room. The next day, he flew to Shanghai for a pre-planned business meeting.

At this point, Wood tried to enter an email exchange into evidence, resulting in a great deal of confusion on Judge Wilson’s part about how email reply chains work. (You read from the bottom.) After that confusion was resolved, a July 10 email was entered into evidence: “btw my gf just texted me saying the head of the Thai rescue team said the solution isn’t practical & the press is turning against me.” Wood noted that members of the media, before Unsworth said anything, had described the sub as a PR stunt.

Musk posted the “pedo guy” tweets “minutes to hours” after seeing the video

Here is where we come to Musk’s third mistake: he had a Google alert set up on his name. (“Not anymore.”) He wasn’t quite sure where he’d seen the Unsworth interview, but he thought maybe Twitter. Musk posted the “pedo guy” tweets “minutes to hours” after seeing the video. The video was then played for the court; Musk turned pink while he watched it. 

At this point, the “pedo guy” Twitter thread was entered into evidence, and the befuddled court had to be told that the reply chains work the other way on Twitter — the first tweet is at the top, and the last tweet is at the bottom. Musk helpfully explained Twitter’s reply mechanism means that when you reply to someone, it’s less visible than when you simply tweeted. Then the meaning of the slang “sus” was explained to the court.

Wood asked if Musk knew who Unsworth was when he tweeted. Musk thought he was “a random creepy guy” who was unrelated to the rescue. Wood then asked a series of questions establishing at length that Musk didn’t know who Unsworth was, apparently trying to get a rise out of Musk. Wood’s take on the apology tweet was that it was insufficient, because it did not clarify that Musk didn’t mean Unsworth was not literally a pedophile.

A very testy exchange between men

At this point, perhaps inevitably, we come to the con man: James Howard, a convicted felon. Howard had been trying to get in touch with Musk about investigating Unsworth; Musk was not directly involved in contracting Howard; Jared Birchall, who runs Musk’s family business Accession LLC and who has served briefly as an officer of Neuralink and the Boring Company, contracted Howard, who was paid $52,000. There was a $10,000 bonus for verified information on misconduct by Unsworth; Howard never got the bonus. 

Birchall apparently told Musk that the investigator claimed he had verified information that Unsworth met his wife when she was 12. Musk said he wanted copies to make sure the information was true; Howard couldn’t provide the information.

Wood then switched back to Twitter. Musk’s August 29 tweet suggesting it was weird Unsworth hadn’t filed a lawsuit is teed up again. Wood told Musk he’d sent Musk a letter about his intent to file suit unless they could work something out; Musk said he’d been told about the letter but may not have read it. Wood dug up Musk’s sworn deposition, where Musk said he’d read it. Musk then said he interpreted the letter as a “shakedown,” “extortion.” “I get these shakedown letters quite a lot.”

“I think you’re looking for a significant payday.”

This visibly irritated Wood. He asked Musk where in the letter the shakedown occurs. Musk said that Wood couches it in fancy language but Musk knows what it means. “I think you’re looking for a significant payday.” Wood seemed to take this personally, and a very testy exchange between men occurs. “You don’t work for free,” Musk said to Wood. “Neither do you,” Wood said to Musk. Judge Wilson told both men in fancy language to settle down.

So Wood moved on to Musk’s emails to Buzzfeed reporter Ryan Mac, who was sitting in front of me and shifted uncomfortably as several people, including members of the plaintiff’s legal counsel, turned to stare at him. Mac’s jaw worked. (I asked him after the trial if he had any on-the-record comment about his star turn and he referred me to a tweet: “After eating and thinking about it for 2 hours, my main takeaway from court today is that I would never want a jury to decide my fate based on my tweets blown up on a big screen.”) Wood had Musk read aloud the “I fucking hope he sues me” portion of the email. “I guess be careful what you wish for,” Musk said. 

Judge Wilson interjected to tell the jury that Mac’s email is not part of the defamation claim. Frankly, by this portion of the afternoon, Judge Wilson seemed cranky.

“‘Guy’ does not add gravitas to a statement.”

Well, who could blame him. Musk had been testifying for almost four hours. My back hurt — courtrooms are not ergonomic. And finally, we came to “pedo guy;” insult or accusation? Musk maintained that it was an insult, he didn’t clarify that because he didn’t think it required clarification, and he didn’t mention it in the apology because he thought it would make things worse. Besides, according to Musk, calling someone a “pedo guy” just means they’re creepy. “Pedo guy is less — it’s a frivolous insult. ‘Guy’ does not add gravitas to a statement.” After this somewhat deflating exchange, Wood rested his cross.

In the five minutes left in the day, Musk’s lawyer, Spiro, began asking Musk biographical questions, establishing that Musk was a father of five. That his first son had died as an infant. That Musk grew up in South Africa and his childhood was [long pause] “not good.” Judge Wilson ended promptly at 5PM PT, which was good news for the jurors. Though they were attentive, some of them seem to have lost the thread of questions a few times. It’s hard work, witnessing exchanges between men.

We’ll all be back at it at 9AM PT on Wednesday.