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How Elon Musk Spent Labor Day Weekend and Why It Matters
If you were offline and missed it, Media Matters has a rundown of what happened. But the tl;dr version is that Musk is big mad because ADL has repeatedly pointed out that since Musk’s purchase of Twitter (I refuse to call it X), antisemitism on the platform has increased. Now, ADL is hardly the only organization to show this in its research, but ADL is a well-resourced, longstanding institution with a lengthy record of corporate accountability wins.
But perhaps more relevant here, ADL is a frequent target of the far-right, especially online. Musk is always seeking attention and engagement from far-right reactionaries on Twitter. What better way to get approval from those folks than to threaten to sue the ADL and then boost antisemitic posts about the organization on your own account?
Musk coming for ADL is part of a larger trend — attacks on researchers who study disinformation and hate speech on the tech platforms. One of the Right’s strategies is to attack the credibility of these researchers, what they produce, and the institutions where they work. Republicans in Congress, led by Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, are using their majority in the House to harass researchers and institutions. Officially the Judiciary Committee has opened an “investigation” into whether universities, think tanks, and organizations that do research into social media colluded with the US government to suppress right-wing speech. But as there’s not one shred of evidence that this happened, the demands for documents and testimony amount to a form of harassment designed to intimidate the targets of their “investigation.”
#TheTwitterFiles was Musk’s own contribution to this strategy. Together Musk and Jordan have created a kind of weird echo chamber of powerful individuals, the Chair of a powerful Congressional committee and the owner of a tech platform, leveraging powerful institutions to spread conspiracies and disinformation. They amplify one another’s conspiratorial content, and Jordan’s “investigation” seems to come directly from the conspiracies and disinformation “reported” on in #TheTwitterfiles. Musk is especially helpful to Jim Jordan because while the media has tuned out a lot of the GOP’s noise, it still tends to cover everything Elon Musk says and does. Making him a powerful ally.
ADL isn’t always popular with other Civil Rights and Advocacy groups (sometimes with good reason, sometimes not), so it’s been wonderful to see the solidarity in the face of Musk’s attacks. As Claire Atkin of Check My Ads put it to NBC News, “An attack on ADL is an attack on all of us.” She’s right, especially as ADL isn’t the only advocacy organization under attack. Center for Countering Digital Hate, another organization that researches social media, is currently being sued by Twitter, and Jordan’s Judiciary Committee has issued the organization a subpoena. Advocacy groups that do this work have figured out that the only way to deal with bullies like Elon Musk and Jim Jordan is to stand up to them and show solidarity with one another. These organizations won’t be intimidated the way other institutions might.
What worries me is Musk’s potential to distract us from the larger issue of Big Tech and next year’s election. Musk owns Twitter outright, so there’s realistically only so much advocacy organizations can do to pressure him. You can target Twitter’s advertisers, but I’m not sure any campaign will be as effective at driving ad dollars away as Musk’s own business decisions, policy choices, and personal behavior have been. Twitter is a company and community in decline, and who knows what remnants of the platform will be left by Election Day 2024. Donald Trump, Twitter’s more famous user, doesn’t even want back on the platform. Trump has only tweeted only once since Musk restored his account. Writing for Tech Policy Press, Anika Collier Navaroli, a former Trust and Safety executive at Twitter, predicts that Twitter’s role in this upcoming election will be greatly diminished and that Donald Trump won’t use the platform all that much in the run-up to 2024. I tend to agree.
However, Musk’s antics and the media’s obsession with them give every other tech platform cover in 2024. Because if we’re focused on Twitter, there’s less oxygen for what the other platforms — all of which arguably will have more influence on the electorate — will or won’t do to protect the integrity of the 2024 election. Something I suspect the CEO of every other social media company is grateful to Elon Musk for.
Platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Google have quietly rolled back many of their policies on misinformation and gutted their trust and safety teams with layoffs. The other platforms haven’t joined in Musk or the GOP’s attacks on disinformation researchers and advocacy groups, but they haven’t condemned the attacks either. (And I’m sure they don’t mind another company doing the discrediting for them this cycle. Some of you will remember Facebook once paid a comms firm that peddled antisemitic conspiracy theories about Civil Rights groups on its behalf.)
Much as I wish we could simply shut off Twitter and ignore Elon Musk, that’s also not possible. Musk’s encouragement of Bad Actors and threatening the ADL puts the organization’s staff in harm’s way and adds more fuel to an environment where antisemitic violence is on the rise across the US, a reality that ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt has emphasized repeatedly in interviews this week. We all need to show our solidarity with the Jewish community and continue to speak out against antisemitism in any form, online or off.
One more thing: Elon Musk’s role as a government contractor needs to end. Immediately. Twitter aside, as Ronan Farrow’s recent exposé in the New Yorker made clear, Elon Musk’s interests are not Americas, and Musk is now wielding his influence in ways that are a national security risk. Just this week, we got an example of this when news broke that Musk personally thwarted what could have been a decisive attack by Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression.
Elon Musk shouldn’t have a runway to do to American national security what he’s done to Twitter.