Billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk never fails to drive Twitter users wild.
The Tesla boss, however, has quite a history of online conflicts that have sometimes splashed beyond Twitter. Here are some of the most remarkable ones.
The 420 Frenzy
Musk created a big headache for himself last year after tweeting that he might take Tesla private in a buyout offer at $420 per share and that he had “funding secured”. The company never went private, but its stock price soared on the tweet, with short-sellers who had bet against Tesla losing big.
The Securities and Exchange Commission fined both Tesla and Musk $20 million on charges of fraud, and he was forced to step down as chairman of the company (while retaining his position as CEO). As part of the settlement with the watchdog, Tesla also committed itself to overseeing what Musk says to investors in public and improving corporate governance practices.
In February 2019, Musk tweeted that Tesla would make around 500,000 vehicles this year, which the SEC believed contradicted the official investor letter from the company.
Hours later, Musk revised that number to 400,000, but the SEC asked a federal judge to hold Musk in contempt because he allegedly violated the existing fraud settlement.
“Something is broken with SEC oversight,” the Tesla CEO tweeted in response; he still managed to revise the deal with the SEC later on and escaped new charges.
The Banks Tales
The rapper Azealia Banks unexpectedly got involved in the 420 story. She alleged that she was camped out at Musk’s house in Los Angeles at the invitation of Musk’s girlfriend, pop star Grimes, at the time he posted the “taking private” tweet. The two women were allegedly supposed to make music together, but Banks complained that Grimes was too busy comforting Musk in light of the scandal that his tweet set off.
“Lol I waited around all weekend while Grimes coddled her boyfriend for being too stupid to know not to go on Twitter while on acid,” Banks wrote on Instagram stories, comparing the weekend at Elon’s to the horror film Get Out.
The rapper said in an interview with Business Insider at the time that she “saw him in the kitchen tucking his tail in between his legs scrounging for investors to cover his ass after that tweet”.
Musk, in turn, maintained that he barely saw Banks and that she never saw him stressing out over investors. He also denied that he was using drugs.
“I saw her on Friday morning, for two seconds at about a 30-foot distance as she was leaving the house,” he told The New York Times. “I'd just finished working out. She was not within hearing range. I didn't even realise who it was. That's literally the only time I've ever laid eyes on her.”
Banks then disclosed a screenshot of an alleged conversation with Grimes that appeared to show Musk’s girlfriend saying that he chose the stock price to be $420 as a weed reference.
The rapper later apologised for her revelations.
The ‘Pedo Guy’
While the SEC has let Musk off the hook, at least for the time being, there has been another major controversy, this time a personal one, surrounding his tweets.
It all started in the summer of 2018, when divers were trying to rescue a teenage football team from a flooded cave in Thailand. Elon Musk attempted to sell himself to the world as the drama unfolded and offered the divers the opportunity to use his custom-made miniature submarine to navigate the narrow tunnels.
One of the divers participating in the operation, British-born Vernon Unsworth, described Musk’s pitch as a PR stunt and told him to “stick his submarine where it hurts” in an interview.
The billionaire engineer subsequently called Unsworth a “pedo guy” in a Twitter post; he later doubled down on that unconfirmed statement – still not corroborated by any evidence – by tweeting “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true”.
The cave rescuer sued for defamation. It emerged from the court documents that Musk’s aide had hired a private investigator to dig up any compromising information on Unsworth and that Musk had tried to push forward his paedophilia allegations in email to a BuzzFeed reporter. The trial is due to begin in early December.
The Escobar Flamethrower
Next up, Colombia, homeland of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. Pablo’s brother Roberto, who had been an accountant for his infamous Medellin Cartel, has accused Elon Musk of stealing his flamethrower idea.
Musk’s The Boring Company released its viral ‘Not a Flamethrower’ flamethrower in January 2018. It became a success, but Roberto claimed that one of Musk’s engineers copied the design of his own planned toy torch gun after visiting his compound in Medellin.
Just last month, Escobar – who is also demanding $1 billion from Netflix for alleged unauthorised use of material for their series Narcos – threatened to “take down” Musk with a $100 million lawsuit.
Musk has never publicly denied the allegations, but cheekily tweeted in July: “It’s Not a Flamethrower, Mr. Escobar,” adding that he had copied the design from the movie Spaceballs.
Also, I stole the idea from Spaceballs https://t.co/1ozau39PQZ— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 12, 2019
The Farting Unicorn Theft
This wasn’t the first time Musk was accused of stealing an idea. In the spring of 2017, Tesla's in-car operating system and advertising materials started featuring an image of unicorns farting electricity to power an electric car.
Musk appeared to have first seen the unicorn image in February that year, when he posted a picture of a mug with a similar unicorn and described it as “maybe my favourite mug ever.”
The author of the picture, potter Tom Edwards, from Colorado, was hopeful that Musk would pay him “adequately” for using his idea, but Musk appeared unenthusiastic about it. He wrote to Edwards’ daughter in a since-deleted tweet: “He can sue for money if he wants, but that's kinda lame. If anything, this attention increased his mug sales.”
Musk also claimed he had offered to pay Edwards twice, but the latter stated no one from Tesla had reached out to him.
The two cleared up the air in July 2018 on undisclosed terms. Edwards said, however, that the settlement “resolves our issues in a way that everyone feels good about”.
The Blue Origin Taunts
Musk has on a couple of occasions called out Blue Origin, an aerospace company competing for the space market with his company SpaceX. Blue Origin and SpaceX were among the 14 firms recently hired by NASA to help it return to the Moon and, eventually, reach Mars.
Musk wants to launch people to Mars and create a self-sustaining colony there, as a base for further space exploration efforts. Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, believes that sending settlers to the Moon is a more realistic idea.
Bezos reportedly taunted plans to colonise Mars at a presentation of Blue Origin’s round-shaped lunar lander in May 2019, showing a slide with an image of Mars that read “Round-trip on the order of years” and “No real-time communication”.
Musk could not resist a retaliatory jab: “Competition is good. Results in a better outcome for all... But putting the word ‘Blue’ on a ball is questionable branding,” he said, apparently referring to a painful testicular condition.
But putting the word “Blue” on a ball is questionable branding— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 10, 2019
In April this year, Musk called Bezos a “copycat” over Amazon’s planned internet-satellite constellation Project Kuiper, which is similar in nature to SpaceX’s Starlink.
The NASA Delays
Musk got involved in a brief back-and-forth spat with NASA's chief over a separate SpaceX pet project – the Starship spacecraft.
SpaceX and Boeing have received multi-billion contracts to help NASA send astronauts to the ISS. This programme is still in its final stage, and the first crewed launches are expected to occur in the first half of 2020 despite the initial deadline of 2017.
Just before Musk praised progress on the unrelated Starship project, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine issued a passive-aggressive response: “Commercial Crew is years behind schedule,” he tweeted. “NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It’s time to deliver.”
Musk returned the favour, saying in a subsequent interview: “Did he (Bridenstine) say Commercial Crew or SLS?”
“Jim Bridenstine said, quote, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule & it’s time to deliver. Did you take that ...”— Viv 🥟 (@flcnhvy) September 29, 2019
“Did he say Commercial Crew or SLS?”
This is it. The finest burn in history. @elonmusk 😀 pic.twitter.com/lvlnzvIXbt
The punchline references NASA’s Space Launch System mega rocket, which the agency plans to use to ferry astronauts to the Moon. Multiple delays in the programme have led to cost overruns, and the date for the first test flight has yet to be announced.
“Everything in aerospace is years behind, OK?” Musk added. “It`s really a question of relatively speaking which one is more late.... it’s really going as fast as we can make it go.”
The Short Shorts
Musk is known for his disdain for short sellers – the investors who make money by betting that a stock they sell will drop in price. David Einhorn, president of the hedge fund Greenlight Capital, has been among Musk’s loudest critics.
Tragic. Will send Einhorn a box of short shorts to comfort him through this difficult time.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 1, 2018
Last August, Musk sent Einhorn a box of shorts after the investor said Tesla shares moving up – and thus against him – landed him in the red.
After Tesla shares jumped nearly 40 percent on a surprising Q3 earnings report, Einhorn’s hedge fund saw its gains plummet. The investor claimed in a letter to clients that Musk had committed fraud by acquiring the solar panel installer SolarCity in 2016 for $2.6 billion. The company, which was founded by his brothers, was reportedly declared insolvent shortly after the acquisition closed.
Several Tesla shareholders have filed a lawsuit against Musk over the purchase of the company. They allege that he had been aware of the cash crisis SolarCity was facing at the time of the acquisition and bought it an inflated price to effectively bail it out. Tesla rejected the allegations.
This month, Musk and Einhorn traded barbs in a fresh development of their feud. Addressing Einhorn as “Mr. Unicorn” – the German translation of the surname – Musk accused him of making “numerous false allegations” against Tesla and offered him to have a meeting and a tour of Tesla’s factories.
He added: “It is understandable that you wish to save face with your investors, given the losses you suffered.” Einhorn in response challenged Musk to identify misstatements in his shareholder letter, but still accepted the invitation.