"Bolder and more aggressive": Elon Musk's X placing major brand names next to antisemitic content

Advocates say Musk's platform has consistently placed major ads on account associated with white nationalism

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published September 16, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

X icon is seen displayed on a phone screen (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
X icon is seen displayed on a phone screen (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, has been placing brand advertising on an account linked to a white nationalist streamer known for promoting violence against politicians and LGBTQ advocates, according to Media Matters

Big-name brands like Major League Baseball, Bayer, Tyson Foods and eBay have had their advertising placed next to Stew Peters' X account, which has more than 400,000 followers. Peters, who reportedly lives in Minnesota, has been associated with spreading far-right conspiracy theories, including false claims about COVID vaccines and racist, antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ  tropes on his podcast.

Despite CEO Linda Yaccarino's reassurances that X "opposes antisemitism in all its forms," many critics say the platform has consistently demonstrated a lack of action against antisemitic content, and that X owner Elon Musk has engaging with such content on multiple occasions. 

"I expect more from leaders than we're seeing from Musk, for sure," Libby Hemphill, a professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information and the Institute for Social Research, told Salon. "He's made it clear that he doesn't find extremism as dangerous or antisocial as many of us do."

Several major brands have had their ads appear adjacent to accounts associated with white nationalist, neo-Nazi and even Holocaust-denial content, including the accounts of extremists recently restored to the platform under Musk, according to Media Matters. Some of the content being promoted includes long-discredited conspiracy theories linking Jewish people to the 9/11 attacks.

At least two companies suspended ad campaigns on the social media website after their ads appeared next to an account promoting Nazism, CNN reported. X suspended that account once the problem was brought to the company's attention, saying that ad impressions on those pages had been minimal.

Several major brands have had ads appear adjacent to accounts associated with white nationalism, neo-Nazism and even Holocaust denial, according to Media Matters.

"Public backlash can be a powerful motivator to get brands to pressure ad platforms to change their policies or restrict the types of ad content allowed near a brand," Hemphill said. "Of course, the ad contracts are pretty one-sided. Brands would have to be willing to push platforms to change their terms, and platforms would have to be willing to enforce more policies."

While most leaders "normally respond to incentives" like public pressure and regulation to get them to step up, those strategies may be less effective with someone like Musk, Hemphill added.

Before Musk acquired Twitter, Peters had been banned from the platform. He has a history of promoting conspiracy theories and produced two films, "Watch the Water" and "Died Suddenly," that claim to uncover sinister conspiracies involving the novel coronavirus and alleged "bioweapon" vaccines.

Peters has also encouraged violence, recently calling for the death of Hunter Biden as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci, who Peters said should "hang from a length of thick rope until he is dead," Rolling Stone reported. 

On X, he has attacked people for being Jewish and promoted white nationalist views and content. He once posted a picture of Adolf Hitler, tweeting: "Say what you will about Hitler, but people turned out for his rallies." 

In its safety policies section, X asserts that it prohibits "hateful conduct," stating that users are not permitted to "directly attack" other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or religion, among other things. In several instances, Peters would appear to have engaged in exactly that behavior. 

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Media Matters cited two examples of Peters promoting violence and found ads for major brands directly on those posts. Peters shared an image of a flier calling for the murder of pro-LGBTQ advocates, which included the Target retail chain and the anti-bullying organization GLSEN, because of their support for transgender rights. 

 "It seems that certain individuals are distributing literature at their nearby Target store," he wrote. 

Brand ads that appeared next to this post included those for Bayer, Motley Fool, Outback Steakhouse, Puck News, the Philadelphia Inquirer and New Jersey tourism, according to Media Matters.

Peters has written that drug companies engaged in vaccine manufacturing should receive "the death penalty," a sentiment unlikely to appeal to Bayer, a pharmaceutical multinational that played a role in producing one COVID-19 vaccine

Peters once shared a video featuring politicians and reporters expressing support for COVID-19 vaccines, and commenting: "Every single one of these people deserve the rope."

He has also commented about pop singer Sam Smith, who identifies as nonbinary, saying, "Any serious society would give this demon the Old Yeller treatment." 

While critics say Musk has taken little or no direct action to address antisemitism on X, he has threatened to file lawsuits against organizations that have reported on the increase in antisemitic content on the platform since he acquired it.

Musk ​​sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate in July, claiming that its research into hate speech was false or misleading, which the center denies. More recently, he threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, claiming that its allegations about increased antisemitic content on X have resulted in significant revenue losses.

The tech billionaire has justified the spread of hate speech and antisemitism on his platform by claiming to defend free speech, while he has also "regurgitated the central tenets" of some widespread antisemitic conspiracy theories, Jill Garvey, chief of staff at Western States Center, an anti-extremism watchdog group, told Salon.

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Garvey said that many individuals, especially disaffected young white men, can be drawn to antisemitic language online. They come across the "great replacement" theory or claims that a secret "Jewish cabal" wields immense influence in world affairs, she said.  

Such ideas come from "a long line of white nationalist ideology," Garvey observed. "What I think is so problematic about this is [Musk] really gesturing at those antisemitic tropes. He's using a lot of coded language, but I think he's becoming more bold and more aggressive in trafficking some of this language that does lead to real-world violence."

Hemphill, of the University of Michigan, has researched this issue but says there is no clear consensus about what true accountability might mean for social media platforms. Advertisers could demand more control over the types of content that appear in ads near their brands, for instance, which would require more work from both advertisers and platforms.

"Brands and advertisers have more power than users right now, because users are the product rather than the client for platforms," Hemphill said. "Users can, in turn, pressure advertisers and platforms by not clicking on ads, writing to brands, recruiting their friends to do the same. Users can also pressure their representatives to pass legislation changing the rules about who is accountable."

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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Antisemitism Elon Musk Politics Racism Reporting Social Media Twitter X