"PR stunt masquerading as a lawsuit": Experts slam Elon Musk's attack on Media Matters' reporting

"The lawsuit is here. Thermonuclear it is not," attorney says, teasing that "discovery will be fun"

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published November 21, 2023 10:42AM (EST)

Tesla and SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk attends the first plenary session on Day 1 of the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park on November 1, 2023 in Bletchley, England. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Tesla and SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk attends the first plenary session on Day 1 of the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park on November 1, 2023 in Bletchley, England. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter and owned by tech magnate Elon Musk, sued Washington, D.C. watchdog group Media Matters over a report that alleged the platform published ads alongside posts expressing neo-Nazi sentiment. 

The suit filed by X named Media Matters and writer Eric Hananoki, and called the report "intentionally deceptive." Published Thursday, the report contained screenshots of normal advertisements appearing alongside antisemitic content on X, leading several large companies — including Disney, Apple, and IBM — to pause advertising on the platform. X's lawsuit alleges that some of its most prominent advertisers were among the companies that yanked themselves from the site. It also claims contract interference, business disparagement, and interference with prospective economic advantage.

“The overall effect on advertisers and users was to create the false, misleading perception that these types of pairings were common, widespread, and alarming,” the filing states, adding that X's safety measures "under normal, organic conditions operate seamlessly." The lawsuit also claimed that Media Matters toyed with the algorithm, following a slew of accounts comprised of large companies, and partaking in "excessive" scrolling and refreshing.

X CEO Linda Yaccarino took to the platform to provide a statement on the matter after the Washington Post requested a comment, asserting that "If you know me, you know I'm committed to truth and fairness."

"Here's the truth," Yaccarino wrote. "Not a single authentic user on X saw IBM’s, Comcast’s, or Oracle’s ads next to the content in Media Matters’ article. Only 2 users saw Apple’s ad next to the content, at least one of which was Media Matters. Data wins over manipulation or allegations. Don't be manipulated. Stand with X."

Media Matters President Angelo Carusone called the lawsuit "frivolous," adding that it was "meant to bully X's critics into silence." 

"Media Matters stands behind its reporting and look forward to winning in court. Onward!" he said.

We need your help to stay independent

The Washington Post reported that the lawsuit was filed in Texas, where the filing claims that X conducts substantial business; however, it is headquartered in San Francisco and incorporated in Nevada. Following the announcement of the lawsuit, Texas attorney Ken Paxton, R, launched a probe into "potential fraudulent activity" by Media Matters. Paxton's office in a statement said that the AG was "extremely troubled by the allegations that Media Matters, a radical anti-free speech organization, fraudulently manipulated data on X.com (formerly known as Twitter)."

“We are examining the issue closely to ensure that the public has not been deceived by the schemes of radical left-wing organizations who would like nothing more than to limit freedom by reducing participation in the public square,” Paxton said in the statement.

Legal experts criticized Musk's effort to target the watchdog's reporting.

"X, a Nevada corporation is suing Media Matters, a Maryland corporation, in Texas, a state whose only relation to the parties is that it has vowed to jail anyone who criticizes one of them," tweeted Georgia trial and appellate lawyer Andrew Fleischman. 

"Musk admitted in his own tweet that Media Matters had seen the ads next to Nazi content, his only dispute was that they artificially saw more ads than a normal account would," Fleichman added. "Which is like blaming a customer who posts about a cockroach in his salad for ordering too many salads."

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

"The lawsuit is here. Thermonuclear it is not," quipped attorney Bradley Moss. "Discovery should be fun. Would love to see if X can back up its safety claims in this pleading."

Lawyer Renato Mariotti dismissed Musk's complaint as a "PR stunt masquerading as a lawsuit."

Musk on Wednesday declared on X that a paid X Premium user's peddling of an antisemitic conspiracy theory targeting Jewish people was the "actual truth," per a separate report from watchdog Media Matters. The user claimed, in part, that "Jewish communities have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them," to which Musk responded, "You have said the actual truth," screenshots of the exchange show. The antisemitic post that Musk praised was in response to another user who wrote, "To the cowards hiding behind the anonymity of the internet and posting 'Hitler was right': You got something you want to say? Why dont you say it to our faces…”

Musk was met with swift condemnation for endorsing the conspiracy theory, which is the same one that motivated the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooter in Pittsburgh, The Atlantic's Yair Rosenburg emphasized online. "Elon Musk pushing unvarnished anti semitism at a time of rising antisemitism and violence against Jews," CNN anchor Jake Tapper wrote on X

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

MORE FROM Gabriella Ferrigine

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Elon Musk Media Matters Politics