"A cesspool for bigotry": Elon Musk's threats against Anti-Defamation League may backfire

Anti-extremism expert: Under Musk, X is losing revenue "because his platform is now a cesspool for bigotry"

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published September 9, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

An effigy of Elon Musk is seen on a mobile device with the X and Twitter lgoso in the background (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
An effigy of Elon Musk is seen on a mobile device with the X and Twitter lgoso in the background (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Elon Musk, the owner of X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, set off an online storm this week when he threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, whose mission is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people." Musk claimed that the organization's allegations of increased antisemitism on the social media platform after his 2022 acquisition have resulted in significant revenue losses for the company.

"Our US advertising revenue is still down 60%, primarily due to pressure on advertisers by @ADL (that's what advertisers tell us), so they almost succeeded in killing X/Twitter!" Musk tweeted.

If this continues, he warned he would have "no choice," but to file a defamation suit against the ADL – whose mission is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all." The ADL and the Center for Countering Digital Hate also found that the daily use of the n-word tripled the 2022 average and the use of slurs against gay men and trans people were up by 58% and 62%, respectively, CNN reported

Musk has called these reports "utterly false," claiming that "hate speech impressions," or the number of times a tweet containing hate speech has been viewed, "continue to decline" since his ownership of the company. He even sued the CCDH in July, saying its research into hate speech was false or misleading – a claim the center denies.

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But anti-extremism experts point to Musk's leadership failures and argue that the tech billionaire is responsible for Twitter's decline. Now, they argue, he is leveraging widespread antisemitism to scapegoat for his business shortcomings. 

"It's ironic. Elon Musk creates the conditions on his platform for hate speech and disinformation to run rampant, gets criticized by a whole chorus of people and institutions, not just ADL, loses revenue because his platform is now a cesspool for bigotry, and then singles out a Jewish identifying organization fighting antisemitism as the one to blame – thereby peddling more disinformation," Jill Garvey, chief of staff at Western States Center, an anti-extremism watchdog, told Salon.

Since Musk took over X, antisemitic tweets more than doubled in the following months, according to research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a nonpartisan think tank, and CASM Technology, a start-up that researches disinformation and hate speech online.

Between June and Oct. 26, 2022, the day before Twitter's acquisition by Musk, there was a weekly average of 6,204 tweets deemed "plausibly antisemitic," meaning at least one reasonable interpretation of the tweet fell within the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of the term as "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews," Carl Miller wrote for Salon. But from Oct. 27 until Feb 9, 2023, the average was 12,762 – an increase of 105%, Miller pointed out. 

At least two companies even suspended ad campaigns on the social media website when their ads appeared alongside an account promoting Nazism, CNN reported. X suspended the account once the problem was brought to their attention and noted that the ad impressions on that page were minimal.

"It's clear that the ADL has been having effective conversations behind the scenes with advertisers," said Nandini Jammi, the co-founder of Check My Ads, a nonprofit watchdog. "Elon has in many ways destabilized the platform and implemented a number of bewildering policy decisions. It's no surprise that advertisers are looking to outside groups for guidance on how to proceed."

X placed ads for several brands directly on Holocaust denial, white nationalist and neo-Nazi accounts with ads even appearing next to content from the accounts of extremists that have been restored under Musk, Media Matters found.

Now, after his most recent threats of a lawsuit against ADL, the group's CEO Jonathan Greenblatt issued a statement saying that "the real issue is neither ADL nor the threat of a frivolous lawsuit... Musk is engaging with and elevating these antisemites at a time when ADL is tracking a surge of bomb threats and swatting attacks of synagogues and Jewish institutions, dramatic levels of antisemitic propaganda being littered throughout Jewish and non-Jewish residential communities, and extremists marching openly through the streets in Nazi gear."

Musk's failure to address the spread of antisemitic messages is "incredibly dangerous" because antisemitic conspiracies often lead to more violence, pointed out Sophie Bjork-James, a professor at Vanderbilt University, who researches the white nationalist movement.

"For someone with the public standing of Elon Musk, to be threatening the Anti-Defamation League, it really kind of increases people's interest in what's going on and it can bring more people into white supremacist ideologies," Bjork-James said. 

Historically, antisemitism has redirected people's economic anxiety onto a fear of Jews as opposed to a recognition of the economic system, she added. Musk's actions of blaming the ADL for his own business shortcomings is employing the same tactics.

"Over the last 20 years, there's been literally a $50 trillion transfer of wealth from the bottom 90% to the top 1% so billionaires really don't want us to be questioning the economic system because it's working very well for them," Bjork-James said. 

But what is particularly dangerous about antisemitism is its link to violence. People are more susceptible to it today because of widespread ignorance and economic anxiety, she explained. Musk's threats of lawsuits have also resulted in anti-hate groups and civil rights organizations reaffirming their commitment to combat hate speech on social media and expressing they would not be deterred by legal threats from Musk, NBC News reported

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More than 60 organizations, including the ADL and the CCDH, are participating in a campaign, known as #StopToxicTwitter, which urges corporations to stop advertising on X as long as Musk maintains lenient regulations concerning hate speech, harassment and similar behaviors, which the app's previous management addressed rigorously.

Musk has largely defended himself and claimed that he's "against anti-Semitism of any kind," despite fuelling antisemitic tropes, including attacks against fellow billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish.

In a late Friday statement, the company's safety team wrote that "X is committed to combating antisemitism on our platform."

Now, as groups like ADL and the CCDH try to hold the Tesla owner accountable, he has "unfairly couched this argument around free speech," Garvey said. 

However, his threats of a lawsuit against the ADL is representative of a much larger problem, she added. It's a "collision" of the Jewish cabal conspiracy theories and the "great replacement theory," which claims that liberal elites are deliberately trying to replace white Americans to further a political agenda.

"This reference to Jewish people or institutions – sort of pulling the strings behind the scenes – is deeply rooted in false conspiracies that argue that Jewish people are all powerful controllers of wealth and politics," Garvey said. "It's really dangerous and it's really prevalent."

On a platform like X, which should set the standard for civil discourse and discourage attacks on people that are rooted in racism, antisemitism, and misogyny, Musk's leadership has done the opposite, she added. 

"By loosening their policies and regulations and welcoming back the very worst offenders, they have done the opposite of setting the standard," Garvey said. 

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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