The rescue efforts captured international attention for a week after Richard Stanton and another diver found the boys, trapped by rising waters. One by one, the 12 young soccer players and their coach were escorted out of the cave. And Elon Musk was there, with an invention he’d dreamed up on the fly and brought to the rescue site, just in case it was needed. The invention was a child-size submarine, one that Narongsak Osatanakorn, the official running coordination of the rescue effort, told the Guardian was “not practical” for their mission.
And that’s the quote that seemed to prompt Musk to fight online about his role in the rescue. Questioning the official’s expertise, Musk said Stanton was the real expert and offered up his email exchange with the elite diver to prove his ideas were welcome.
As disasters unfold in real time online, Musk is pioneering a new form of viral tourist: the would-be savior who becomes a part of the narrative, whether they actually helped or not. Musk’s adjacent virality in the case of the Thai soccer team has even become a meme:
Before Musk’s offer, there was Jake Paul, a massively popular YouTuber who lives in a pit of drama. Last summer, after a month or so 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 Walmart parking lot — and brought water scooters to help go door-to-door rescuing people from their homes. Houston needed anyone who could to pitch in at that moment. It also made good vlog material. As Paul live-vlogged his rescue work, he alternately talked about his good heart and his many haters.
“We are going to get them supplies, we are going to save their lives, and we’re going to flippin’ vlog it all at the same time!” Paul said in one video. “We’re going to flippin’ rise, and we’re going to everyday-bro it, in their face.” It wasn’t clear in that moment if he meant the hurricane’s devastation or the people who wrote negative things about him and his fans online. The vlog left the impression that Paul was doing good to own the haters.
Musk, too, has a history of showing off his inventiveness and altruism. 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 Los Angeles traffic. And before Musk built a submarine to rescue boys from caves, he’d lashed out at the media for covering his company negatively. Among other things, Musk appeared to be upset about a Reveal report detailing safety issues at his factories. His response included a now-viral rant in which he proposed fixing journalism by building a Yelp for journalists, allowing the public to rate the reliability of individual reporters and outlets.
Like Paul, Musk has many haters. He’s buffered from them in part by his large online following, who cheer his tweets attacking perceived enemies and treat him like a real-life superhero.
And this is how Musk got involved in Thailand in the first place. One of Musk’s fans tweeted him last week, imploring him to help, and Musk began a lengthy, live brainstorming process on Twitter for a way to invent a solution that the country of Thailand would be unable to create.
The result was a child-size submarine built out of rocket parts. Musk tested his device in a Los Angeles pool and then flew himself and the pod to the site of the caves.
In the end, his experimental submarine wasn’t used, but he thought he’d leave it in Thailand just in case the country needed it later.
By Wednesday afternoon, Musk had zeroed in on a new problem to solve. Someone on Twitter suggested Musk wouldn’t be capable of solving the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. This was his reply:
This post has been updated, and the timestamp changed, to include Musk’s new Flint mission.