Elon Musk is extremely mad at Media Matters, a nonprofit watchdog group that has been calling out hate speech on X/Twitter and pointing to alleged instances in which corporate advertisers' ads have been placed next to hateful content. Now, he has filed the lawsuit he promised over the weekend, following an article that helped drive major advertisers away.
The "thermonuclear" lawsuit that Musk threatened after repeatedly calling Media Matters an "evil organization" was indeed filed Monday in the Northern District of Texas. As TechCrunch reports, the suit alleges that Media Matters "manufactured" and "contrived" the screenshot images that appear in this article, which was published Thursday, and that regular users would never see the combinations of hateful content next to ads by Apple, IBM, Oracle and other companies.
The trouble for X/Twitter is, the content is there, and the company isn't trying to deny that. This all goes back to Musk's not necessarily bulletproof solution to the problem of hate speech in his no-holds-barred, mostly unmoderated version of Twitter, which is to algorithmically disadvantage such content, so that unless one actively follows white-nationalist accounts and the like, one wouldn't be likely to ever see it. Low impressions, Musk argues, is equivalent to content removal, except no content has been removed.
This might be a win-win for free speech in his mind, but for advertisers, the calculus is a lot dicier. And when an organization like Media Matters comes along and shows advertisers what's on the platform, and how it could appear next to their ads, they go running scared and pull their ads en masse.
As TechCrunch explains, Media Matters may have "contrived" the scenarios you see in their reporting — "by using an older account (no ad filter), then following only hateful accounts and the corporate accounts of advertisers." But the point of reporter Eric Hananoki's piece last week was when CEO Linda Yaccarino assures advertisers that "brands are now 'protected from the risk of being next to' potentially toxic content," that isn't entirely true in all circumstances.
"Of the 5.5 billion ad impressions on X [the day the article was published], less than 50 total ad impressions were served against all of the organic content featured in the Media Matters article," X said in a formal response last week that was posted by Musk along with this lawsuit threat.
Musk calls the article "fraudulent" and an act of defamation, but the company seems to be admitting that while it may be misleading, it isn't fraudulent.
Yaccarino herself said in a tweet Monday that "Only 2 users saw Apple’s ad next to the content, at least one of which was Media Matters," and "Data wins over manipulation or allegations."
The problem that Yaccarino and Musk are trying to skirt, though, is that they are running a platform where such content proliferates at all. Hate speech exists across the social media universe, yes, and X is not unique in having this problem. But other companies like Meta have at least invested years and many millions into combatting such content, playing the daily Whack-a-Mole game with the help of moderation teams and algorithms, and getting the worst content removed. By stubbornly sticking to the idea that only content that incites violence will be subject to removal, Musk has created the advertiser problem he now has — it was baked in from the moment the Trust and Safety team was gutted, and all the talk in the world about impressions and reach isn't going to solve it.
"Musk admitted the ads at issue ran alongside the pro-Nazi content we identified," said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, in a statement last week. "This is like getting mad at a mirror because you don’t like the reflection. If he does sue us, we will win."
Also, Musk is crying "evil" at Media Matters while remaining defiant about a retweet of his own last week that at least for one advertiser — Lionsgate Entertainment — was mentioned specifically as a reason they were pausing ads. While Musk himself may not harbor antisemitic feelings, a retweet of statements offensive to Jews that contain dogwhistles for the Great Replacement Theory shows him to be, at best, careless in the kinds of content he endorses. And that's problematic enough for the owner of social media company dependent on advertisers.
"You have said the actual truth," was Musk's reply with his retweet, responding to a user's post about how Jews were "pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them," and how western Jews were "coming to the disturbing realization that those hordes of minorities that support flooding their country don’t exactly like them too much."
The tweet from Musk was enough to elicit condemnation from the White House, and it only served as confirmation for many that, at best, Musk's ear isn't very well tuned to the language of antisemitism, though he may claim to abhor it. And he has in no way tried to distance himself from the tweet in question — even though the original user's tweet has been deleted.
And regardless of this lawsuit, or all of the bluster on X's end about what Media Matters has done to scare advertisers, the combination of Musk's arguably racist, definitely insensitive retweet with the Media Matters piece was something of a one-two punch — and Musk bears responsibility for the one in that one-two
Said Media Matters in a subsequent piece titled "It's the antisemitism, stupid," "The 'root cause of X having antisemitic content next to Ads' is that there’s a ton of pro-Hitler, Holocaust denial, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi content on X for the ads to appear alongside. That's not a coincidence."
And the purveyors of hate speech aren't doing X or Musk any favors. Media Matters points to white nationalist Nick Fuentes and others now celebrating Musk for "normalising" their ideas, and comparing the retweeted tweet above to "what we were saying in Charlottesville."