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The truth about Elon Musk and anti-Semitism
Elon Musk, a self-proclaimed "free speech absolutist," is threatening to sue the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for billions of dollars because the group has publicly criticized his management of X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. In a public meltdown over X's declining financial condition, Musk accused the ADL, an organization founded in 1913 "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all," of being "the biggest generators of anti-semitism" on X.
It wasn't always like this.
On November 2, 2022, a few days after acquiring Twitter for $44 billion, Elon Musk met with representatives of the ADL and other civil rights groups to address their concerns about content moderation. After the meeting, Musk described the ADL president Jonathan Greenblatt and the others in attendance as "civil society leaders" and assured the group that "Twitter will continue to combat hate." He promised that "Twitter will not allow anyone who was de-platformed for violating Twitter rules back on platform until we have a clear process for doing so," and that would involve a "content moderation council." The council, Musk said, would "include representatives with widely divergent views, which will certainly include the civil rights community and groups who face hate-fueled violence."
But all of that was a lie.
Musk never formed a content moderation council and began making unilateral decisions to reinstate previously banned users. The ADL and other civil rights groups called for advertisers "to pause their spend globally until it becomes clear whether Twitter remains committed to being a safe place for advertisers as well as society overall."
Corporations like General Mills and the Volkswagen Group heeded this advice, and Musk reported that Twitter experienced "a massive drop in revenue." Musk claimed that groups like the ADL were "trying to destroy free speech in America," which he described as "extremely messed up."
A few weeks later, Musk decided to grant "general amnesty" to all previously suspended Twitter users, including those who were suspended for anti-Semitic hate speech. The ADL noted that, following Musk's amnesty, E. Michael Jones, an anti-Jewish writer "who promotes the view that Jews are undermining Catholicism and western civilization, tweeted for the first time in two years and thanked Musk." Musk also fired most employees tasked with combating hate speech and dissolved the "Trust and Safety Council, the advisory group of around 100 independent civil, human rights and other organizations that the company formed in 2016 to address hate speech."
The ADL began monitoring the impact of Musk's decisions. In December 2022, the ADL reported it had observed "both an increase in antisemitic content on the platform and a decrease in the moderation of antisemitic posts." Musk said the report from the ADL and another from the Center for Countering Digital Hate were "utterly false" and claimed "hate speech impressions" had declined since he purchased the platform. Musk pledged that the account @Safety would share data on "hate speech impressions" on a weekly basis. But the @Safety has shared that data only once, on January 11, 2023. In March, the account admitted its data was based on defining "hate speech more narrowly by evaluating slurs in the nuanced context of their use."
On May 24, 2023, the ADL released a report that "monitored 65 reinstated accounts" and "observed how their reply threads acted as social spaces where Twitter users connected through shared antisemitism and other hate." The ADL "collected over 5,000 examples from February 2023 of virulent antisemitism from 2,173 accounts following the reinstated accounts in our sample."
According to Musk, X's advertising revenue remains down 60%, a devastating blow to a company that counts on advertising for the lion's share of its revenue. It's not a coincidence that in June 2023, Musk hired Linda Yaccarino, an experienced advertising executive, as Twitter's new CEO. Her job was to bring advertisers back to the platform.
In August, Yaccarino reached to ADL's Greenblatt in an effort to mend fences. Apparently, the meeting went well. Greenblatt posted that they "had a very frank + productive conversation with @LindayaX yesterday about @X, what works and what doesn't, and where it needs to go to address hate effectively on the platform… I appreciated her reaching out and I'm hopeful the service will improve." Yaccarino responded: "A strong and productive partnership is built on good intentions and candor. Thank you Jonathan."
That's when all hell broke loose.
Right-wing users, including several who were previously banned from the platform for hate speech, were upset that Yaccarino was engaging with the ADL. Jake Shields, a "mixed martial arts champion and right-wing extremist" apparently launched a hashtag #BantheADL. "Let’s get this trending to help wake the masses of how evil they truly are," Shields posted. The campaign was quickly picked up by others, including Keith O'Brien, a "far-right Irish activist" who posts on X under the pseudonym Keith Woods. O'Brien is "an anti-Semitic YouTuber with ties to white nationalist Richard Spencer." Last month, O'Brien "was a speaker at the white supremacist American Renaissance Conference." O'Brien also runs a livestream on a video platform run by Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist who was reinstated by Musk before being banned again. Fuentes "explicitly called for his followers to help make the hashtag trend on both his livestream show as well as his Telegram channel."
That's when Musk weighed in. He liked numerous tweets promoting the hashtag, including at least one by O'Brien.
Musk began to participate directly, suggesting that he might "run a poll" on whether to ban ADL the from X. Soon, #bantheADL became a top trending topic on X.
Musk quickly lost interest in banning the ADL and began discussing suing the organization. In a series of posts, Musk said the ADL "has been trying to kill this platform by falsely accusing it & me of being anti-Semitic" and "almost succeeded." He claimed that the ADL was "responsible for most of our revenue loss" and said he was considering suing them for $4 billion. In a subsequent post, he upped the figure to $22 billion.
"To clear our platform’s name on the matter of anti-Semitism, it looks like we have no choice but to file a defamation lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League … oh the irony!," Musk said.
The ADL, however, never accused Musk or X of being anti-Semitic. The group reported, correctly, that X was hosting anti-Semitic content and Musk had rolled back efforts to combat hate speech. And the ADL, exercising its First Amendment rights, encouraged advertisers to spend their money elsewhere unless and until Musk changed course. The notion that the ADL, a Jewish group, has the power to force corporations to bend to its will is rooted in anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power over the business world.
How Musk mainstreams anti-Semitic speech
Musk, known for repeatedly associating with far-right circles, has a history of amplifying anti-Semitic speech. Less than three months ago, for example, Musk responded jokingly to a tweet promoting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. The tweet featured a picture of President Joe Biden with his eyes closed and the actor Mel Gibson in a muscle tank. The caption read, “You can do adrenochrome or you can hate the Js. Which way western men.”
Biden is implied to take adrenochrome, a chemical that QAnon adherents believe is extracted from the blood of children by a global “cabal” of pedophiles. As the Guardian writes, the theory is “a modern remix of the age-old antisemitic blood libel,” a myth championed by Nazis in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the tweet lauds Gibson – a celebrity notorious for making anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic remarks – for hating Jews. The question posited at the end, “Which way western men,” is also the title of a 1978 book (Which Way Western Man?) written by a white nationalist who believed Jews are “enemy Number one.”
But rather than debunk the tweet, Musk responded, “Gibson is really that buff these days?”
In May 2023, Musk shared a neo-Nazi quote that was wrongly attributed to the French Philosopher Voltaire. The saying actually comes from Kevin Alfred Strom, “a self-proclaimed American white nationalist and Holocaust denier.” The quote is a paraphrase of a comment Strom made in a 1993 radio broadcast and “has been used previously online and paraphrased in a variety of ways,” AP News reports.
Whether Musk was unaware of the quote’s origins or pretended to not know is unclear. But the tech billionaire had previously engaged with the quote in 2022, one expert points out. The quote had also been fact-checked by numerous major outlets earlier that year.
Earlier in May, Musk also compared George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist and holocaust survivor, to Magneto, a Jewish supervillain in the X-Men comics. A commenter pointed out that like Soros, Magneto was also a Holocaust survivor. “Soros, also a Holocaust survivor, get's [sic] attacked nonstop for his good intentions which some Americans think are bad merely because they disagree with this [sic] political affiliations,” the Twitter user wrote.
Musk responded by accusing Soros of hating humanity and said that Soros “wants to erode the very fabric of civilization.” The tweet was posted “hours after it was revealed that Soros' fund dumped its entire stake in Tesla's stocks,” Business Insider says. In an interview with CNBC, Musk doubled down on his comments, claiming they were his “opinion.”
Along with making anti-Semitic remarks, Musk is also reinstating the accounts of those who make similar comments, like Kanye West. Musk also “consistently finds himself chatting it up with Twitter’s best-known antisemites.”