- Getty Images
- Elon Musk might be the world’s most extremely online billionaire.
- The Tesla CEO, worth an estimated $26 billion, has a habit of getting into fights and long-running feuds over the internet.
- Musk is an enthusiastic Twitter user and often jokes around with his followers – but sometimes takes it too far.
- Here are his weirdest fights.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Elon Musk has a combative streak.
The Tesla and SpaceX CEO is famously unpredictable as chief executives go, a personality trait which has sometimes landed him in trouble – particularly with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
But Musk’s combative side doesn’t just express itself in skirmishes with government agencies. The Tesla billionaire has ended up in bizarre spats with a strange array of people – from fellow billionaires to artists to rescue divers – and often via his preferred medium of Twitter.
The twists and turns in the stories of Musk’s various battles are no less baffling, and it can be hard to remember all the different ways Musk has squared up to various public figures and regular citizens.
We’ve catalogued his weirdest fights.
1. When he called a complete stranger “pedo guy”
- REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Vernon Unsworth is the British diver who participated in the rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave system in June 2018. It was a difficult, complex operation and the boys were successfully rescued after being trapped for 17 days by international divers and Thai Navy SEALs. Unsworth, an experienced cave explorer, was asked by Thai officials to aid in the rescue.
He had never met Elon Musk, but would go on to spend most of 2019 locked in a legal battle with the Tesla billionaire.
Musk had inserted himself into the Thai rescue operation and offered to build a mini-submarine to fetch the boys. The idea never materialized.
Unsworth was asked about Musk’s submarine in an interview with CNN, and described it in unflattering terms, describing it as a PR stunt. He added that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
That angered Musk, who subsequently wrote a post on Twitter calling Unsworth a “pedo guy.” When a Twitter user challenged him over it, he replied “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
His remarks immediately triggered headlines around the world, despite the fact he provided no proof for the “pedo” claim.
Musk doubled down on the allegation by emailing BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Mac and calling Vernon Unsworth a “child rapist”, with no evidence
- Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Censured by critics for using the slur, Musk deleted his tweet and apologised, but he didn’t leave it there. A month later he responded to a Twitter user who criticised him. “You don’t think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me? He was offered free legal services,” Musk tweeted, referring to Unsworth.
Then in September 2018, he doubled down. BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Mac emailed Musk asking for comment on a legal threat made by Unsworth’s lawyer. Musk replied, suggesting Unsworth was a “child rapist” and “I hope he fucking sues me.”
Musk prefaced the email to Mac with “off the record,” but the journalist had never agreed to go off the record, and published the entire exchange. Documents later revealed Musk called himself a “fucking idiot” for sending the email to Mac in the first place.
A few weeks after Mac’s article was published Unsworth sued Musk for defamation.
Court filings revealed Musk hired a detective to investigate Unsworth — but the PI turned out to be a conman
- Joshua Lott/Getty Images
The case threw up some bizarre findings.
Court filings revealed that Musk paid a man named James Higgins-Howard $50,000 to investigate Unsworth and relay reports to Musk’s family office.
Higgins-Howard emailed Musk out of the blue following the initial “pedo guy” tweet to offer his services as a private detective. “You may want to dig deep into Mr. Unsworth[‘s] past to prepare for his defamation claim,” Higgins-Howard wrote, adding “no smoke without fire!”
Higgins-Howard didn’t find any evidence, however, and BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac later reported that the would-be PI had previously been convicted of fraud. Musk admitted in a deposition that he later realised Higgins-Howard was “just taking us for a ride.”
In depositions Musk has also argued that by calling Unsworth “pedo guy” he wasn’t literally accusing him of being a pedophile because the term was used to be synonymous with “creepy old man” when he was growing up in South Africa. He also claimed he was genuinely worried Unsworth could be “another Jeffrey Epstein.”
The trial began on December 3, 2019.
Elon Musk won the defamation case.
After a four-day trial in California, the jury found Musk not guilty of defamation.
The jury took less than half an hour to reach their decision, which reportedly hinged on the fact that Musk did not identify Unsworth in his tweet, according to the Times of London.
The foreman also said that Unsworth’s lawyers had made the case too emotive. “The failure probably happened because they didn’t focus on the tweets… I think they tried to get our emotions involved in it. In a court of law you have to prove your case, which they did not prove,” said foreman Joshua Jones per the Guardian.
“My faith in humanity is restored,” Musk said following the verdict.
Unsworth’s lawyer Lin Wood said in a tweet that his team would “explore legal options” for challenging the verdict.
2. When he took a liking to farting unicorn art, but didn’t pay for it
- Tom Edwards, Wallyware
June 2018 saw Musk lock horns with another unlikely member of the public.
Colorado-based potter Tom Edwards caught Musk’s attention with a mug. The mug carried a painting of a unicorn farting rainbows to power an electric car. Musk tweeted a picture of a mug in February 2017 calling it “maybe my favorite mug ever.”
Two months later friends of Edwards’ told him they had seen the same farting unicorn image used as an icon on Tesla screens, and the image was later used on Tesla’s company Christmas cards.
The Christmas card spurred Edwards into action. “I decided to make it my New Year’s resolution to pursue getting compensation, because artists are always seeing their work just taken, and it happens all the time,” he told Business Insider in June 2018.
In later-deleted tweets Musk attacked Edwards, saying taking legal action would be “kinda lame.”
“If anything, this attention increased his mug sales,” he said. Musk also claimed (also in subsequently-deleted tweets) to have offered to pay for the work twice. Edwards said he’d had no contact from Musk or Tesla at that point.
Despite Musk’s protestations, the two eventually settled
- Brendan McDermid/Reuters
A month after the farting unicorn argument erupted on Twitter, Musk and Edwards came to a settlement. The terms of the settlement were not made public, but Edwards posted on his blog that it “resolves our issues in a way that everyone feels good about.”
“It’s clear there were some misunderstandings that led to this escalating, but I’m just glad that everything has been cleared up,” he added.
Musk for his part tweeted a link to the blog accompanied by three emojis: a unicorn, a gust of wind, and a peace symbol.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 21, 2018
3. When Azealia Banks waded into Tesla’s regulatory troubles
On August 7, 2018 Elon Musk sent his infamous “funding secured” tweet, in which he claimed to be taking Tesla private at $420 a share.
Tesla did not go private, and Musk landed himself with a $20 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the tweet. He lost his position as chairman of Tesla’s board, leading to long-running bad blood with the agency.
And it triggered another unlikely feud, with rapper Azealia Banks.
A week after Musk sent his fateful Tweet, Banks wrote on her Instagram that she had been at Musk’s house at the time when he’d sent it. She had visited to collaborate with Musk’s partner Grimes (real name Claire Boucher), and claimed she had been annoyed when the crisis caused by “funding secured” dominated Grimes’ time.
“I waited around all weekend while grimes coddled her boyfriend,” Banks wrote, and compared the weekend to the horror film “Get Out.”
“I saw him in the kitchen tucking his tail in between his legs scrounging for investors to cover his ass after that tweet,” Banks told Business Insider at the time.
Banks accused Musk of taking her phone
- Getty Images
On August 20 Banks was back on Instagram, tagging Elon Musk.
Banks posted “@elonmusk you need to contact me. ASAP.” and “I need my phone back now. @elonmusk,” on her Instagram story – she later deleted the posts.
Banks then shared a screenshot with Business Insider that appeared to show a text from Grimes saying the choice of share price ($420) was a weed reference. “He just got into weed cuz of me and he’s super entertained by 420 so when he decided to take the stock private he calculated it was worth 419$ so he rounded up to 420 for a laugh and now the sec is investigating him for fraud,” the text read.
Musk told the New York Times that he rounded up the price because $420 had better “karma” than $419, and denied using weed.
Musk, usually combative, didn’t really respond publicly to Banks except to say he had never met her
- Reuters / Rebecca Cook
“I saw her on Friday morning, for two seconds at about a 30-foot distance as she was leaving the house… I’d just finished working out. She was not within hearing range. I didn’t even realize who it was. That’s literally the only time I’ve ever laid eyes on her,” he told the Times.
The Banks-Musk feud dragged on for months after the story blew up
- Isaiah Trickey/FilmMagic
Banks lashed out at Musk in January of this year after Musk’s attorney said Banks had a “history of making bold and sometimes unverified claims.”
“They are still slighting me like I don’t have plenty more dirt to spill on Elon,” she wrote on Instagram – later deleting the post. “This is going to get extremely ugly… Elon will learn very soon who is more powerful of us two.”
In January, a court granted a motion to subpoena Banks, Grimes, and publications including Business Insider.
4. When he was accused of stealing an idea from Pablo Escobar’s brother
Musk ended up in a spat with Roberto Escobar, brother of deceased Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, over an accusation of intellectual property theft.
TMZ first reported that Escobar had accused Musk of stealing his idea for a flamethrower when Musk’s venture The Boring Company announced its “Not-A-Flamethrower” flamethrower in January 2018, beating Escobar’s own flamethrower to market.
Escobar claimed to TMZ that one of Musk’s engineers had stolen the idea while visiting an Escobar family compound in 2017.
“It’s not a flamethrower, Mr. Escobar.”
- iJustine/YouTube/Joe Rogan Experience
Elon Musk responded to the story in classic Muskian style – on Twitter.
Musk tweeted a link to the TMZ story accompanied by the words, “It’s not a Flamethrower, Mr. Escobar,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the device’s name.
It’s Not a Flamethrower, Mr Escobar https://t.co/TXH02nixIc
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 11, 2019
In a follow-up tweet he added he stole the idea from the comedy movie “Spaceballs.”
6. When he traded jibes with Jeff Bezos about which parts of space to conquer
- Blue Origin
Jeff Bezos owns a space exploration company called Blue Origin, a rival to Musk’s own space exploration company SpaceX.
Bezos and Musk have sporadically interacted about their companies’ successes, sometimes applauding each other, but more often locking antlers.
When Blue Origin unveiled its new lunar lander Blue Moon in May 2019 Bezos reportedly took a swipe at SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars during his presentation, saying that the moon was a much more realistic prospect. According to Bloomberg, Bezos showed a slide with a picture of Mars accompanied by the labels “Round-trip on the order of years” and “No real-time communication.”
Musk responded by mocking the lander’s name.
“Competition is good. Results in a better outcome for all… But putting the word “Blue” on a ball is questionable branding,” Musk said in a pair of tweets.
Musk also called Bezos a “copycat” over his plan to launch thousands of satellites
- Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
In April 2019 Amazon announced its plan to launch 3,236 satellites with the aim of providing broadband to communities without high-speed internet, nicknamed Project Kuiper.
The project bears some resemblance to a SpaceX project called Starlink, which won FCC approval in November 2018 to launch almost 12,000 satellites into orbit. CNBC also reported that Amazon hired a former SpaceX executive to head up Kuiper.
After news of Project Kuiper broke, Musk tagged Bezos and tweeted the word “copy” followed by a cat emoji.
.@JeffBezos copy ????
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 9, 2019
Bezos did not respond.
7. David Einhorn, the billionaire short seller Musk loves sending short shorts to
- REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Musk has a pretty well-documented hatred for short sellers, once tweeting “what they do should be illegal.”
One short seller in particular has drawn Musk’s ire. David Einhorn is president of Greenlight Capital, and is typically pretty scathing in his notes about Tesla and Musk.
When Einhorn blamed Tesla’s good performance in the first half of 2018 for denting Greenlight’s hedge fund, Elon Musk promised to send him a box of “short shorts” – and he followed through.
— David Einhorn (@davidein) August 10, 2018
In November 2019 Musk renewed the offer of short shorts after Einhorn published a damning note on Tesla’s Q3 results, drawing attention to a shareholder’s lawsuit against Tesla which alleges that Musk acquired his cousin’s company SolarCity at an inflated value to bail it out.
Musk posted an incredibly sarcastic note on Twitter following Einhorn’s letter, addressing him as “Mr. Unicorn.” Einhorn is German for unicorn.