The Media Today

Elon Musk wants to blame someone else for Twitter’s decline. This week, it’s the ADL.

September 7, 2023
22 March 2022, Brandenburg, Gr'nheide: Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, attends the opening of the Tesla factory Berlin Brandenburg. The first European factory in Gr'nheide, designed for 500,000 vehicles per year, is an important pillar of Tesla's future strategy. Photo by: Patrick Pleul/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

When Elon Musk first expressed interest in buying Twitter (now known as X) last year, a number of observers (including us) wondered what the world’s richest man could possibly want with an unprofitable social media platform. Musk said that his interest in Twitter was driven in part by a desire to turn the platform—which he called the world’s “de facto town square”—into a bastion of free speech, and that he would see it as a victory if commenters from both the left and the right felt uncomfortable there. After his acquisition was finally completed in October, however, most of the changes Musk made seemed to favor the right. By December, The Atlantic tech writer Charlie Warzel had concluded that Musk had become a “far-right activist.”

Last week, we learned a little more about Musk’s motivations for buying Twitter when the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from a new biography of Musk by Walter Isaacson, a former president of CNN and the author of a number of biographies, perhaps most notably of Steve Jobs. (The book will be released next week.) In April 2022, Isaacson reports, things were going well for Musk; shares of Tesla, his electric-vehicle company, had increased in value by about fifteen times in five years, and SpaceX, his other company, was also doing well. “It promised to be a glorious year, if only Musk could leave well enough alone,” Isaacson writes. “But that was not in his nature.” Instead, Musk’s nature was to behave impulsively. Per Isaacson, Musk decided to take over Twitter because it was “an addictive playground” and owning it would make him “king of the school yard.”

Musk told Isaacson that there was another aspect to his desire to acquire Twitter: his concern that American society had become infected with a “woke mind virus,” which he characterized as a belief system that was “fundamentally anti-science, anti-merit, and anti-human in general.” Unless it was stopped, he said, civilization would “never become multiplanetary.” According to Isaacson, Musk’s concern was triggered in part by Jenna, his eldest child, transitioning to a different gender and cutting off all contact with him. Jenna “went beyond socialism to being a full communist and thinking that anyone rich is evil,” Musk told Isaacson. He blamed her private school.

Once the idea of the woke mind virus got into his head, Musk saw it everywhere. Isaacson describes how Musk railed against Twitter’s cozy atmosphere when he toured the company’s headquarters, making fun of staffers’ “Stay Woke” T-shirts and the gender-neutral bathrooms. Since then, Musk has reserved some of his strongest criticism for entities that he believes have helped broaden the reach of the woke ideology. One of those entities is the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, a nonprofit that says its mission is to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

This past weekend, Musk alleged in a series of posts that the ADL had pressured advertisers to remove their ads from X, and that this was the primary reason that the company’s US ad revenue was down 60 percent since he acquired the company. “They almost succeeded in killing X/Twitter,” Musk wrote. He went on to allege that the ADL would not relent unless he agreed to “secretly suspend or shadowban any account they don’t like”; that the ADL had the same relationship with Twitter before he acquired it; and that, “presumably,” they have a similar relationship with “all western search or social media orgs.” Musk concluded that the ADL was likely responsible for destroying 10 percent of X’s value, a figure he pegged at about forty billion dollars. He would have no choice, he said, but to file a defamation lawsuit (though, at time of writing, he had yet to do so).

According to a report from Rolling Stone, last Thursday, the hashtag #BanTheADL started trending on X, driven in part by a meeting between Jonathan Greenblatt, the organization’s national director, and Linda Yaccarino, X’s CEO. (Greenblatt described the meeting as “frank and productive.”) Those who worked hardest to amplify the hashtag, according to Rolling Stone, included Keith Woods, whom the magazine described as an Irish YouTuber with connections to prominent white supremacists, and Andrew Torba, the chief executive of Gab, a platform popular among right-wingers and neo-Nazis. At one point, Musk liked a post in which Woods alleged that the ADL is “blackmailing social media companies into removing free speech on their platform,” and replied with a post of his own alleging that the ADL was doing its best to kill X.

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In Musk’s attacks on the ADL, many users of X saw a thinly veiled anti-Semitism. This week, in an open letter to Yaccarino, Claire Berlinski, an author and historian, called Musk “the most dangerous anti-Semite in America,” and the #BanTheADL campaign “one of the most vile public outpourings of antisemitism in American history.” By promoting it, Berlinski argued, X gave the accounts in question not only freedom of speech but “extraordinary reach,” with Musk bearing personal responsibility.

Musk’s enmity toward the ADL, it should be noted, didn’t start with the hashtag campaign. As far back as last year, Greenblatt condemned Musk’s decision to reinstate Donald Trump’s account, which had been suspended after the former president incited the January 6 riot in Washington. In May, Musk, echoing an anti-Semitic trope, tweeted that George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist, “hates humanity”—a comment that the ADL criticized strongly; the same month, the ADL published a report finding that anti-Semitism on X increased dramatically following Musk’s acquisition of the platform. (The organization collected more than five thousand examples of anti-Semitic commentary in February, from more than two thousand accounts.) Per Rolling Stone, Musk and Greenblatt also clashed in August, after Musk claimed that there has been a “genocide of white people” in his native South Africa; Greenblatt said that there was no evidence to support this claim, leading Musk to respond with two exclamation marks. According to some recent tweets using the #BanTheADL hashtag, some of the group’s critics now see it as an “anti-white hate group.”

Nor is the ADL the only supposedly “woke” institution or pressure group that Musk has gone after. During his tweetstorm about the ADL, Musk also claimed that Meta had “caved to far left pressure groups and now allows them to silently dictate policy in exchange for ad money.” This appeared to be a reference to the #StopHateForProfit ad boycott, which was organized by a number of nonprofit organizations, including, in addition to the ADL, the NAACP, Free Press, Common Sense Media, Color of Change, and a group known as Sleeping Giants, which pressures websites and media companies to stop running advertisements from Breitbart and other conservative entities. According to Politico, that hashtag campaign led to more than eight hundred companies pulling their ads from Facebook.

Even if Musk ends up suing the ADL—which some observers, including The Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg, view as highly unlikely—it wouldn’t be the first time that he has sued a nonprofit group that fights hate speech. Just last month, X filed a lawsuit against a nonprofit called the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a group that published a report finding that X failed to take down 99 percent of the hate speech posted by users who pay for the X Premium service (a subscription plan that includes a blue checkmark); the report also suggested that X’s algorithm effectively boosts “toxic tweets.” In the lawsuit, X accused the CCDH of illegally accessing data and cherry-picking posts to show a rise in hate speech, and blamed that group, too, for hitting the platform’s advertising revenue. (Jem Bartholomew of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism spoke with Imran Ahmed, the executive director of the CCDH, about the lawsuit.)

Whatever Musk thinks about the “woke mind virus,” the available evidence suggests that he is desperately searching for scapegoats on whom he can blame the death spiral of a platform whose acquisition, as Isaacson reports, was not clearly thought through. Mike Rothschild, a disinformation researcher, perhaps put it best this week when he scoffed at the implication that “erratic management, mass layoffs, incoherent moderation…serial unbanning of racists, and crumbling infrastructure had nothing to do with twitter losing half its value.” But Musk’s enabling and promotion of campaigns like #BanTheADL is clearly fomenting hatred. And, as Rosenberg put it, Musk seems to see the “abuse of Jews on his site” as “the consequence of Jews complaining about the abuse.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday brought the first televised hearing in the election-subversion case against Trump and eighteen codefendants in Fulton County, Georgia; Trump wasn’t in court, but cable networks nonetheless broadcast the hearing live. Meanwhile, Fani Willis, the district attorney bringing the case, asked the court and the cameras within it to protect jurors’ identities, citing the threat of their personal information being circulated online.
  • Recently, The Nation reported that prosecutors in New York are investigating James O’Keefe, who was ousted as head of the right-wing sting group Project Veritas earlier this year. Now the Washington Post’s Will Sommer reports, citing an internal audit based on interviews with staffers, that O’Keefe used the nonprofit’s funds to cover apparent personal expenses, including DJ equipment and six hundred dollars of bottled water.
  • Vulture’s Lane Brown reports on the “decomposition” of Rotten Tomatoes, the movie-review aggregator that has become perhaps “the most important metric in entertainment” despite being, in Brown’s words, “erratic, reductive, and easily hacked” by studios and PR firms. “The system is broken,” the filmmaker Paul Schrader told Lane. “Audiences are dumber. Normal people don’t go through reviews like they used to.”
  • The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber profiled dream hampton—“arguably the most significant music journalist of her generation,” who has “publicly, repeatedly broken up with hip-hop” only to find herself drawn back into engaging with the genre. Hip-hop’s recent “50th-birthday celebrations…have put a gauzy sheen on a difficult history,” Kornhaber writes, “and hampton feels obligated to offer a more complicated view.”
  • And the Post’s Terrence McCoy reports that, while the US shrouds supposed sightings of UFOs in secrecy, several countries in South America treat them as public records. “As legislators in Washington push for the same transparency that other parts of the world have enjoyed for years,” he writes, “the cultural and nationalistic differences between how countries interpret the skies and what is divulged have grown even more apparent.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.