Elon Musk apologized to the jury before reading some of his tweets aloud while testifying in court Wednesday.
“I was calling myself Treelon at that time,” he said, explaining an unusual Twitter avatar and name displayed on the screen.
The room tittered, but the brief aside was more relevant to the case than it might seem. This extremely Elon explanation was what he was really fighting for in court this week: the right to keep being a troll on Twitter.
Musk is on trial for allegedly defaming Vernon Unsworth, a member of the mission that rescued the Thai boys’ soccer team that became trapped in a cave in July 2018. In a CNN interview, Unsworth criticized Musk’s efforts to help — and Musk lashed out on Twitter as a result.
The phrase in that tweetstorm that has since gotten him in legal trouble was referring to Unsworth as “pedo guy.” Much of the argument in court centered around whether Musk’s words constituted smearing Unsworth as a literal pedophile, or whether he was just slangin’ a non-literal insult.
“I thought it was obvious that I was just insulting him.”
“People say a lot of things on Twitter that aren’t true,” Musk said during one of the many discussions about the literal versus figurative nature of Twitter burns. “I thought it was obvious that I was just insulting him.”
Whether Musk genuinely believes the defense he and his team are putting forth, or whether he was actually calling the guy a pedophile, is somewhat beside the point. Instead, it was clear from Musk’s testimony, his past statements, and his infamous Twitter presence, that he sees the platform as a non-serious free-for-all where he can joke, talk, and troll. One of his lawyers even came up with a new term for Musk’s “pedo guy” tweet: a JDART, a joking, deleted, apologized for, responsive tweet. Musk doesn’t want legal threats, or his stature as an influential billionaire, to change that for him.
“I would say very little at all if I had to censor what I said publicly,” Musk said during cross-examination Tuesday. “Not everything can be completely thoughtful.”
While the Unsworth insult may have crossed a line (that’ll be up to the jury to decide), Musk is a known Twitter troll who doesn’t shy away from a fight. On Twitter, he pokes fun of figures like Mark Zuckerberg and bodies like the SEC. He calls out aggressors in plain language like “you’re an idiot,” and makes stupid jokes about the punning names of his companies and products. It’s a persona he relishes.
Even while Musk apparently values Twitter, he has also downplayed the seriousness of the tweets he puts out. At the same time, he sees unfiltered conversation as the superior alternative to what he once described (on Twitter, of all places) as “carefully crafted corporate bs, which is really just banal propaganda.”
What Twitter represents for Musk is a low-stakes space where he feels he should be able to say what he wants. The Unsworth case challenges that space, by asserting that his words matter, or at least, will cost him if he gets out of turn.
The position Musk appears to be taking — that Twitter is a non-serious place where your words shouldn’t be taken literally — is far from settled. Twitter itself is making efforts to reduce trolling, and improve “conversational health.” Meanwhile, our Commander and Tweeter in Chief, Donald Trump, reserves the right to lambast his critics, while the courts say the president can’t block the people he finds offensive. Beyond Twitter alone, social media companies are split on whether and which lies are OK to live on their platforms, but united in their repeated failures to stem the hatred and slander they do outright forbid. The Musk case, with its many juvenile terms, may sound ridiculous. But the question of whether words and their truth matter on social media, depending on who says them and how far they travel, certainly carries relevance beyond the two parties involved.
Musk’s lawyers tried to get the judge to nix the Unsworth case. But when that didn’t work, Musk actually refused to settle. Why? Musk, a billionaire, probably could have ended the matter with little financial damage to himself; Unsworth wants at least $75,000 in damages — a pittance for a billionaire.
By seeing the case through to court, and actually testifying himself — for over six hours over two days — Musk is literally taking a stand. Sure, Musk is incredibly wealthy, and his tweets go out to nearly 30 million followers. But he wants to be able to say what he wants to say on Twitter, without having to run things by legal and corporate PR for fear of getting sued.
“I get these shakedown letters quite a lot,” Musk said, referring to a letter Unsworth’s attorneys sent him in August. The testy exchange that followed showed that Musk viewed the efforts by Unsworth and his attorneys as an opportunistic ploy for cash, one that he wasn’t going to just let go with an apology and a payout.
Perhaps Unsworth’s burn that Musk’s building of the mini-sub for the rescue was a “PR stunt” so insulted Musk that he decided this was the “shakedown letter” he decided to take to court.
Or, perhaps, he saw this case a slippery slope, where appeasing the threat of a defamation lawsuit would cost him the freedom of his trolling fingertips on Twitter.
Overthinking his tweets? That wouldn’t be Elon — and avoiding that future is what he’s fighting for. After all, he isn’t a regular CEO. He’s a cool CEO.