From Dawn till Musk: Elon Musk wins landmark social media defamation case

February 3, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Billionaire Elon Musk has won a landmark defamation case over his tweet calling cave diver Vernon Unsworth a “pedo guy”.

What does this mean?

The case was brought by Unsworth, one of the hero divers involved in the Thai cave rescue of 12 boys and their coach last year, after Musk had labelled him with the insult in a Tweet. Unsworth sought $190m (£145m) in damages, claiming his reputation had been tarnished

The insult was used by Musk during a rant on Twitter and was published to Musk’s 30m followers. Unsworth had previously accused Musk of pulling a PR stunt after he sent a miniature submarine to assist with the rescue.

What's the big picture effect?

The case was seen as testing the legal threshold in the US for slanderous material on social media. Following the outcome, it seems an extremely high bar has been set for libel cases involving comments made online. 

During the trial, the Tesla boss claimed that the phrase “pedo guy” was common in his native South Africa and was not meant as a literal accusation. Unsworth’s lawyers attempted to use other tweets by Musk to prove it was a genuine allegation. 

Following the trial, Musk stated that his “faith in humanity had been restored”, while Unsworth’s lawyer said the decision was “not a good verdict for society”. He later Tweeted that there had been a miscarriage of justice. 

An important factor in the case was the introduction of the “JDart” defence by Musk’s lawyer. This acronym was used to describe Musk’s actions on Twitter. It stands for: a Joke that was badly received, therefore was Deleted, with an Apology, followed by Responsive Tweets to move on from the issue. 

This defence is extremely useful in the modern digital age; it allows anyone who made a stupid remark in the heat of the moment to essentially repeal what they said, with no legal consequence. It shows that, while they did make the statement, it was not meant to be taken seriously. 

It is likely that the “JDart” defence will be used again, especially in the current era of social media, where online behaviour is constantly scrutinised.

Report written by Conor McDermott

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