In a recent controversy that may have escaped your attention, Elon Musk has announced that X, formerly known as Twitter, intends to file a defamation lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Musk has accused the ADL, an organization dedicated to combating antisemitism, extremism, and bigotry, of making false accusations of antisemitism against both him and X.
On Monday, the billionaire celebrity took to Twitter to express his frustration: “To clear our platform’s name regarding the issue of anti-Semitism, it appears we have no option but to initiate a defamation lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League… the irony!”
Musk also pointed fingers at the ADL for the decline in X’s advertising revenue in the United States. He claimed, “Our U.S. advertising revenue is still down by 60%, largely due to pressure exerted by @ADL (according to feedback from advertisers). So, they nearly succeeded in harming X/Twitter!”
Musk began this recent tirade by asserting his support for free speech while denouncing antisemitism in all its forms.
These tweets came amid criticism directed at Musk for endorsing posts featuring the hashtag #BanTheADL, which trended on X last week. This trending hashtag and Musk’s engagement with it coincided with the ADL’s announcement of a constructive conversation with X CEO Linda Yaccarino about combating hate speech on the platform.
Musk argued, “Since the acquisition, The @ADL has been trying to undermine this platform by falsely accusing it, and me, of being antisemitic. If this continues, we will have no choice but to file a defamation suit against, ironically, the ‘Anti-Defamation’ League.”
It’s worth noting that antisemitism was a problem on Twitter before Musk assumed ownership. In 2016, the ADL published a report highlighting the increase in antisemitic hate speech targeting journalists on the platform, partly attributed to the rhetoric during the 2016 presidential election.
Since Musk’s acquisition of the platform, reports of hate speech have persisted. In January, a lawsuit in Germany alleged that the platform mishandled Holocaust denial, a criminal offense in the country. Four months later, Germany indicated its intention to fine the social media platform for repeated failures to comply with laws related to hate speech takedowns on social media.
Musk himself has faced accusations of promoting antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories by targeting Jewish billionaire George Soros and engaging with antisemitic content on X. For instance, in June, Musk amplified an antisemitic tweet that presented a choice between using blood from children (linked to a photo of U.S. President Joe Biden) or expressing hatred toward Jews (connected to a picture of actor Mel Gibson, who has a history of making antisemitic comments). While this action isn’t hate speech itself, it demonstrates Musk’s willingness to interact with antisemitic content on his platform. The tweet has since been deleted.
In early August, X also sued the British nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) after the organization released a report alleging that Twitter had failed to act on 99% of hate posted by Twitter Blue users. The CCDH questioned whether Twitter’s algorithm promoted “toxic tweets.” X accused the CCDH of unlawfully accessing data and selectively highlighting posts to depict a rise in hate speech on the platform.
Musk attributed X’s reduced U.S. advertising revenue to pressure from the ADL. According to a New York Times report, X’s U.S. ad revenue for a five-week period from April 1, 2023, to the first week of May was $88 million, representing a 59% decline from the previous year. In a sluggish economy, advertisers tend to cut back, and this advertising downturn may not be solely attributable to personal factors concerning X. Additionally, Musk’s staff reductions after taking over may have reduced operating costs, meaning X requires less revenue to cover employee expenses. However, X still carries a significant debt load resulting from Musk’s acquisition of the company.
Is it fair to blame the ADL entirely for X’s troubles? Likely not. By positioning itself as a haven for “free speech,” X has likely become a platform where content conflicting with brand safety guidelines surfaces more frequently. Coupled with the fact that the platform’s owner frequently engages in trolling other users and public figures, this sets an example of how to stir up controversy. Advertisers have limited budgets and must carefully choose which brands and discussions they want to associate with. Talk against antisemitism must be accompanied by meaningful actions for advertisers and users to support it.