Is SpaceX’s Elon Musk conducting a Twitter ‘war?’
When the first Falcon 9 rocket took to the skies in 2010, it reignited interest in space exploration and saw a legion of fans form behind SpaceX, the rocket’s manufacturer. The founder of the company has made recent statements, however, that have created less than positive press.
SpaceX’s CEO and Founder, Elon Musk, has garnered some unfavorable attention due to his reactions to reports about his automotive company, Tesla, Inc. as well as other efforts the philanthropist has engaged in.
An editorial regarding one particular issue that Musk has had with the media that appeared on Slate.com questioned the billionaire’s statements, casting doubt about their veracity. It alleged Musk used his Twitter account as a “…pulpit to bully female journalists.” It further alleged Musk encouraged his “fanboys” to attack Linette Lopez, a journalist with Business Insider who has been critical of Tesla.
The recent activity on Twitter helps highlight a pattern of behavior whenever questions are raised about Musk’s efforts. This was detailed by the The Daily Beast’s Erin Biba in a editorial posted earlier this year. The comments submitted by Musk’s fans – were less than civil and some were not suitable for print.
The Slate.com Op-Ed noted that Milo Yiannopoulos, a British political commentator, was banned from Twitter for aiming his supporters in the direction of his critics. TechCrunch furthered these concerns by contacting SpaceX directly and asked them if his statements violated Twitter’s terms of service against defamatory content and harassment (these questions pertain to another series of Musk’s posts on Twitter highlighted later in this article), and were told that “Tweets and accounts are reviewed against the Twitter Rules and if a violation is found, action is taken.”
Pravda – grading journalists the Soviet Union way
In a May 23, 2018 post CNN journalist Seth Fiegerman noted Musk had gone “on the attack,” and that the billionaire had essentially accused the media of being dishonest. Musk went on to suggest journalists be “rated” by the public on a site called “Pravda.” Pravda was the leading newspaper of the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union. The choice of name is troubling – given the volume of journalists who have been killed in Russia by violent means.
Pravda could be used as a tool to potentially destroy the credibility of journalists who question the CEO. As noted, Musk has an extensive following of fans who have savaged journalists online. This raises concerns Musk’s ranking system could be misused to ruin the careers of members of the media who report anything negative about the CEO. Fans would simply have to “down vote” those deemed critical of Musk. With his 22 million followers in tow, fears have already been raised that this could be Pravda’s purpose.
Reporters Without Borders stated they were “disturbed” by Musk’s plans for media relations. “He is prone to unhinged Twitter eruptions. He can’t handle criticism. He scolds the news media for its purported dishonesty,” the article goes on to site several reports that provide additional data concerning the billionaire’s conflicts with the media.
This alleged “war on the media” was prefaced by the word “silly” on an article appearing on The Atlantic. However, it did not appear to have deemed that those who judged it so were incorrect. The outlet highlighted how Donald Trump Jr. came to the billionaire’s defense. In fact, Musk’s use of the social media platform Twitter has drawn comparisons to President Donald Trump .
Inverse, cited Musk’s comments on his experience with journalism, tweeting that he “Spent years in newsrooms starting 23 years ago, back when some reporters were still babies w poopy diapers, but hey def lecture me on what a newsroom is like.” A May 17 report on CNNTech states Musk’s treatment of the media has eroded the “hero status” he enjoyed.
The internet age has seen the proliferation of blogs. These privately-owned sites generally have some degree of bias. Some SpaceX employees themselves even operate blogs which question programs considered to be competition for dollars SpaceX would prefer go to them. As noted, SpaceX has developed an extensive fanbase. The company’s supporters who operate these blogs promote what they refer to as “brand stands” – a bias meant to promote an individual or organization. The Atlantic noted that Musk, in at least one instance, brushed off actual members of the media, yet provided an extensive interview with a fan.
This is minor when compared to recent statements and decisions made by the NewSpace pioneer.
Elon Musk suggested a diver who rescued children was a pedophile
In June of 2018 a junior team of soccer players, along with their coach, were trapped inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand. Some twelve boys ranging in age between 12 and 17, and their coach were trapped in the cave which had become flooded during severe rains.
Musk had a Falcon 9 liquid oxygen transfer tube converted into a mini “submarine.” He then personally delivered the device to safely retrieve the trapped boys.
Vernon Unsworth, one of the divers who rescued the trapped children, stated conditions within the cave and the “submarine’s” size made the vehicle impractical. Musk had noted that the submarine could be used for a variety of purposes. Unsworth stated the submarine had no chance of working and that Musk’s efforts amounted to a “PR stunt” and went on to state that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Unsworth’s vulgar commetns initiated an unusual response from a billionaire.
The president of SpaceX referred to the British diver as “pedo guy.” Musk, who is worth an estimated $20 billion, went on to state Unsworth “really did ask for it.” A July 15 tweet reinforced this opinion when he stated: “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true”
The now-deleted tweets suggest Unsworth was a pedophile, something that has prompted the diver to consider legal action. While Musk eventually issued somewhat of an apology, sources including Gizmodo were less than receptive.
Musk also questioned the professional acumen of another of the personnel involved in the rescue, Narongsak Osatanakorn. The billionaire stated Osatanakorn was not “a subject matter expert.” Osatanakorn, holds a Master’s degree from Ohio State University, where he studied geodetic engineering and surveying, was the acting governor of the province where the submerged cave is located and served as the lead of the joint command center that coordinated the operation.
Musk’s efforts were, however, praised by Richard Stanton, who the entrepreneur did acknowledge as a subject matter expert. Stanton was one of the first people to discover the plight of the soccer team.
SpaceX and the media
While recent events have centered on Tesla, SpaceX has not been immune to confrontations with journalists.
SpaceX representatives have entered into contentious verbal sparring matches with members of the media several times in the past few years in full view of colleagues.
After two of the Falcon Heavy’s three first stages touched down at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 on February 6, 2018, a press conference was held which apparently only some members of the press were informed of.
SpaceX media relations personnel also have directed SpaceX representatives to not speak to members of the press who had been critical of the company – in front of the journalists in question.
Positive and negative perceptions
It is unclear why the CEO of several major corporations would enter into Twitter debates with the media, or make accusations of aberrant sexual behavior of those who question his actions. Perhaps most troubling is his decision to create a site to “rank” journalists. Ordinarily, public affairs officers handle communications between the media and public. SpaceX appears to have difficulty keeping professionals trained in this field in its employ. No fewer than four have joined and left the company within the past eight years.
Most of the recent negative press has dealt with Tesla and industry experts noted that when it comes to SpaceX, the end result, payloads being successfully placed on orbit, should be the most important consideration to be made.
“I have known Elon Musk since a four hour meeting with him as he was founding SpaceX. He has kept every promise from that discussion and has accomplished far more than I thought he would,” Dennis Ray Wingo, the CEO of Skycorp Incorporated and the author of books and articles regarding space development told SpaceFlight Insider.
This sentiment is shared with other journalists who have actively covered SpaceX. Some have noted that while what Musk says might not be well-received – he still has the right to express himself.
Video courtesy CBC News
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.