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Elon Musk's 'pedo guy' tweet fuels polarization problem

Commentary: Musk got plenty of premature criticism for his involvement in the Thai Cave Rescue. Then he gave detractors a real reason to criticize.

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Elon Musk reminds me of Nickelback. I mean that in a good way.

Nickelback was once one of the world's most popular bands. People loved them. You or someone you hold dear probably used to bump How You Remind Me on the regular. But something changed circa 2008 and all of a sudden the world decided that Nickelback was the worst band of all time. Nowadays, liking Nickelback is synonymous with having poor taste in music

As CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and Neuralink, Musk has infinitely more to offer the world than Nickelback, but they're similar in this one way. He has a notorious cult-like following that will love him no matter what, but the tide has been turning in recent months. It's becoming cool to hate Elon Musk.

The #ThaiCaveRescue encapsulated the Musk problem well. It involved both premature criticism from Musk's detractors, and subsequent behaviour from Musk that justified some of the criticism.

After 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a cave in Northern Thailand late last month, the rescue effort to save them became big news around the world. Musk got involved in a manner characteristic of his eccentric billionaire status: by commissioning a team to repurpose parts of a SpaceX rocket to become a submarine or escape pod for the kids.

The entire soccer team was rescued over several days without the help of Musk's submarine. An official credited as the operation's leader said the contraption just wasn't practical. Musk replied, revealing an email thread showing one of the divers encouraging him to design the submarine.

This elicited a curiously negative reaction. Much of the criticism was contradictory: Musk was told by some to mind his own business, while others pointed him in the direction of more challenging problems which, they reasoned, he would solve if he was really a good guy. (One of those was the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Musk has since pledged to help, which has incited a fresh round of snarky comments.)

Most commonly, it was said that a narcissistic Musk built the submarine as a PR stunt. This argument may be true to a degree, but the vitriol it generates is confusing.

This is a guy who's actually making progress toward his goal of reaching Mars. Is it even possible for someone like that to be free of ego? Sometimes Musk's ambition works in his favor, like when Tesla built the world's biggest solar battery in 60 days. Other times, as when he sets impossible production targets and then fails to meet them, it doesn't.

The question shouldn't be whether Musk is narcissistic (a charge to which he essentially confessed on Twitter). The question should be whether his narcissism helps a situation or hurts it. In the case of the Thai rescue operation, it didn't fulfill the potential to help tremendously, but it didn't hurt either. So what's the problem?

It's easy to argue that any corporate-philanthropic effort, short of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is related to PR. For years Apple has sold red iPhones from which proceeds go to HIV-related charities. Does Apple care about HIV? I would guess yes, but it almost certainly cares more about marketing. And that's OK. There's nothing wrong with doing good to get good PR.

But that wasn't the end of the story.

Vernon Unsworth, one of the divers involved in the rescue, on Sunday called Musk's involvement a "PR stunt," telling CNN his submarine wouldn't have made it 50 metres into the cave. Musk replied, with a now deleted tweet, saying he'd make a video of the submarine successfully traversing through the cave. The problem? He ended it with an unnecessary, baseless line: "Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it."

Sigh.

(Unsurprisingly, Unsworth told an Australian TV station he is considering legal action.)

Now playing: Watch this: Thai cave rescue: Elon Musk sends tiny submarine
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With us or against us

The Thai Cave Rescue encapsulates Musk's polarization problem. He's an increasingly popular target for criticism, but blind derision, like people reveling in his failure, makes the criticism against his actual faux pas less meaningful.

Musk really has overpromised and underdelivered in the past. In 2016 he claimed Tesla would be manufacturing 500,000 cars a year by 2018, up from 84,000 that year, thanks to a completely automated building process. This has ended up being drastically harder than he anticipated, as the company has been unable to meet production targets for the Model 3: Musk weeks ago announced the team was up to 7,000 cars a week. (Around 9,700 cars would need to be manufactured every week in the year for the 500,000 goal to be met.)

Musk also concerned many in June when he flirted with the idea of creating Pravda, a platform where the public could rate publications and journalists. This stemmed from an April report from nonprofit Reveal that criticized Tesla's safety standards, which Tesla claimed was an "extremist organization working directly with union supporters." The ensuing Twitter spats with journalists, which included the tech entrepreneur making some bold accusations, was a turnoff to many fans of Musk.

These issues get lost in the shuffle of criticisms that are less accurate but more sensational. My least favorite method of Musk incrimination is guilt by association: His fans attack people who criticize him, and it's implied that Musk is at fault for this.

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Musk has a small army of devoted fans who go way too far in defense of him, especially when they threaten journalists or public figures who speak poorly of him. But this is true of almost every famous person: The New York Times just this week profiled a woman who said her life has been ruined by Nicki Minaj fans. The developers of No Man's Sky got death threats for having the gall to delay the game. Online abuse is a huge problem, but it's a problem with the internet, not this or that celebrity. The same people who cry foul when the government tries to blame video games for real-life killings will criticize someone like Musk for the actions of his fans. 

I'm not one of these die-hard supporters. There are some valid criticisms against him, and I enjoyed the memes made at his expense as much as the next guy (maybe more). But the zeal with which people both defend and attack him is worrying. Not out of concern of Musk's feelings, but because the opposing sides become more extreme while the truth remains somewhere in the middle.

Musk's commitment to "fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels" means there's no slowing down anytime soon, either. Nickelback is a remnant of yonder, but the Elon Musk party is just getting started.

First published July 13, 5:00 a.m. PT.

Update, July 15 at 7:58 p.m.:Adds Unsworth's comment and Musk's reaction.
Update, July 16 at 9:00 a.m.: Adds Unsworth telling an Australian TV station that he's considering legal action.

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