Elon Musk Has Had Many Scandals, He’s Just Never Faced Any Real Consequences

The latest involves an illegal anti-union tweet. It won’t be the last.

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk smiles and folds his arms
Tesla CEO Elon Musk in Berlin, Germany on December 1, 2020.
Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images

This Thursday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted, “If there’s ever a scandal about me, *please* call it Elongate.”

It’s a puerile joke, one that fits in with his history of 69 and 420 zingers. But the bigger problem is that Musk has been the subject of a number of troubling scandals, including one that resurfaced on March 25, the same day as the tweet. The reason the billionaire pretends he’s never done anything wrong is because he’s never faced any consequences that have forced him to change his behavior, including in the most recent incident involving an illegal anti-union tweet.

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board “upheld a 2019 ruling that Tesla had illegally fired a worker involved in union organizing” and that Musk “had illegally threatened workers with the loss of stock options if they unionized,” The New York Times reported

That threat came via Twitter on May 21, 2018, when the 49-year-old posted the message, “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare.” 

As part of the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling, the federal agency ordered Tesla to reinstate the illegally fired worker Richard Ortiz with back pay within 14 days. It also told the company to “direct” Musk to delete his tweet from 2018, with no timeframe imposed. At the time of publication, Musk’s tweet is still live on Twitter — and that’s just the kind of low stakes slap on the wrist that the CEO has received in the past, another sign that the current system is incapable of dealing with the freewheeling transgressions of the Tesla boss, and those that occur on social media in general. 

Musk has a history of getting in legal hot water from tweets and getting off easy. In 2018 during the highly publicized rescue of a youth soccer team from a cave in Thailand, Musk called one of the experts who aided in the rescue a “pedo guy” — “pedo” being short for “pedophile” — which led to a $190 million defamation case. Musk was cleared of any wrongdoing. Later that year, he was charged with securities fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission over a tweet, and while that did end in material consequences (stepping down as Tesla’s chairman, a $20 million fine and oversight from an in-house lawyer over public communications), he responded flippantly by tweeting that it was “worth it.” Then, two weeks ago, he was sued by a shareholder for allegedly violating the settlement from that incident.

So yes, Musk has been through a number of scandals, including his 2020 streak of COVID-19 disinformation. What has become evident after watching them play out, however, is that the legal apparatus in place to deal with the tycoon flouting a variety of laws on Twitter is woefully inadequate. In the most recent case of the anti-union activity — which is more relevant than ever due to the Amazon union fight in Alabama — the labor board has made its ruling almost three years after the initial tweet. (In social media years, that’s a lifetime.) And in the SEC case, it’s pretty clear that the in-house lawyer is not actually approving Musk’s tweets when necessary.

The overarching issue of social media regulation is so massive that the single case of Musk, who often defends himself by turning everything into a joke, can seem insignificant. But it’s clear that the current set of consequences for illegal behavior on these platforms — from one of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world no less — do not cut it. 

Should Musk be booted from the platform a la former President Donald Trump? Maybe that’s something the SEC will take on now that, in the last 12 hours, Musk seems to have defied their arrangement again.

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