How Elon Musk used the Thai Cave Saga to launch a new form of viral tourism


Hours after the last teenager emerged alive from a cave in Thailand, Elon Musk launched a row on Twitter over the credit he deserved for offering to help save the children.

The rescue efforts drew international attention for a week, after Richard Stanton and another diver found the boys, trapped by rising waters. One by one, the dozen teenage soccer team members and their coach were escorted out of the cave, alive. And Musk was there, with an invention he had dreamed up on the fly and brought to the rescue site, just in case it was needed. The invention was a child-sized submarine, one that Narongsak Osatanakorn, the official co-ordinator of the rescue effort, told the Guardian was “impractical” for their mission.

And it was the quote that seemed to spark Musk into a fight online about his role in the rescue. Questioning the official’s expertise, Musk said Stanton was the real expert and offered his email exchange with the elite diver to prove his insights were welcome.

As disasters unfold in real time online, Musk is pioneering a new form of the viral tourist: the would-be savior who becomes part of the narrative, whether he actually helped or not. Musk’s adjoining virality in the case of the Thai football team has even become a meme.

Before Musk’s offer, there was Jake Paul, a hugely popular YouTuber who lives in a drama pit. Last summer, after about a month of controversy over his public behavior, Paul drove from Los Angeles to Texas to save the city of Houston from the flooding that followed Hurricane Harvey. Paul collected donations – causing a minor riot in a Wal Mart parking lot – and brought in jet skis to help go door to door to save people from their homes. Houston needed anyone who could step in at that time. He also did some great vlogging material. As Paul blogged live about his rescue work, he alternately talked about his good heart and his many enemies.

“We’re going to get them supplies, we’re going to save their lives, and we’re going to run the whole vlog at the same time!” Paul said in a video “We’re going to rise, and we’re going everyday, brother, in their face.”

It was unclear at the time if he was talking about the devastation of the hurricane or the people writing negative things about him and his fans online. The vlog left the impression that Paul was doing good to possess the haters.

Musk, too, is used to showing off his inventiveness and selflessness. After Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, he sent Tesla batteries to the island to power 600 locations. Once he had an idea to solve the Los Angeles traffic. And before Musk built a submarine to save children from caves, he lambasted the media for negatively covering his business.

Among other things, Musk seemed upset by a Reveal News report detailing safety issues at his factories. His response included a now-viral rant in which he offered to fix journalism by creating a Yelp for journalists, allowing the public to rate the trustworthiness of individual journalists and outlets.

Like Paul, Musk has many enemies. He is partly shielded from this by his large online following, which applauds his tweets attacking perceived enemies and treats him like the actual superhero he imagines himself to be.

And that’s how Musk got involved in Thailand in the first place. One of Musk’s fans tweeted it last week, imploring him to help, and Musk began a long process of brainstorming live on Twitter to find a way to invent a solution that the country Thai would not be able to create himself.

The result was a child-sized submarine built from rocket parts. Musk tested his device in a Los Angeles swimming pool, then flew with the capsule to the site of the caves.

In the end, his experimental submarine was not used, but he thought he would leave it in Thailand in case the country needed it later. Musk tweeted“I just got back from Cave 3. The mini-submarine is ready if needed. It’s made of rocket parts and named Wild Boar after the kids’ soccer team. Get out of here just in case it might be useful in the future. Thailand is so beautiful.”

© The Washington Post 2018



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