By now it shouldn’t surprise anyone when Elon Musk makes an attention-grabbing announcement on social media.
His posts on X (formerly Twitter) are a cascade of casual plans, jests—such as one from April 2022 in which he said he planned to buy Coca-Cola to “put the cocaine back in”—and threats, as in a series of posts from earlier this year challenging Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight. The trouble is that it’s difficult for onlookers to know which posts shared by Musk, who is one of the world’s richest billionaires and has a reputation for boldness, are sincere and which are not. Case in point: his post last week, on Labor Day, that read, “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!”
The tech magnate and self-described “free speech absolutist” is claiming that the ADL’s calls for advertisers to boycott the social media platform, which were first promoted by both the ADL and the NAACP after Musk reinstated former President Donald Trump’s account in November of 2022, are responsible for “destroying nearly half the value of the company.” He estimates damages to be in the neighborhood of $22 billion. (He didn’t mention the NAACP in his weekend tweetstorm.)
Why is Musk threatening legal action now, nearly ten months after the ADL urged advertisers not to patronize the platform? It seems to be inspired by a hashtag spreading across X’s right-wing fringes over the weekend: #BanTheADL was started by Irish white nationalist and conspiracy theorist Keith Woods on August 31: “The ADL’s favourite tactic is financially blackmailing social media companies into removing free speech on their platforms. They even orchestrated an advertiser boycott of Tucker Carlson. Why should they have a platform on X to hold @elonmusk to ransom? It’s time to #BanTheADL.” Woods has claimed that opponents of the hashtag are sent by Israeli intelligence.
After “liking” Woods’ post, on September 2 Musk “quoted” (reposted with comment) Dutch far-right commentator Eva Vlaardingerbroek, who said, “The fact that #BanTheADL is trending shows how done people are with the ‘we’re labeling everything we don’t like as hateful/racist/dangerous/far-right’ BS.” In quoting her, Musk asked, “Perhaps we should run a poll on this?”
The #BanTheADL hashtag was met with enthusiasm in the myriad nooks and crannies of the far-right Twittersphere. One post on X, by a failed far-right Republican Senate candidate from Utah named Sam Parker, ended with “#BanTheADL” and “#ADLIsJewish.” Another poster called the ADL “an anti-White, anti-Christian, anti-traditional family hate group that has done more to keep down White people than any black supremacist.”
A number of X posters have claimed affiliation with Nick Fuentes and his “Groyper” movement of followers. On a recent livestream of his show America First (on the streaming network Cozy.tv, which he created with Alex Jones), Fuentes suggested that the popularization of the hashtag and its boost from Musk showed that society was warming to the idea that “Jewish behavior causes antisemitism.”
“There has been antipathy towards Jews in European society for thousands of years, for reasons, for very specific reasons!” Fuentes continued. “If you start to interrogate, why did they get expelled from England, why did they get expelled from Spain, why were they segregated in Russia, why were they put into concentration camps in Nazi Germany? If you start to answer that question, what they say is ‘you’re justifying hatred of Jews.’”
Fuentes’s “Jewish behavior causes antisemitism” line parallels recent complaints by Musk regarding the ADL. “The ADL, because they are so aggressive in their demands to ban social media accounts for even minor infractions, are ironically the biggest generators of anti-Semitism on this platform!” Musk wrote in a recent post.
In a statement released to CNBC, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt condemned Musk’s behavior and the #BanTheADL hashtag. “It is profoundly disturbing that Elon Musk spent the weekend engaging with a highly toxic, antisemitic campaign on his platform—a campaign started by an unrepentant bigot that then was heavily promoted by individuals such as white supremacist Nick Fuentes, Christian nationalist Andrew Torba, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and others.”
In spite of Musk’s claims that the ADL is responsible for Twitter/X’s decline in value, claims for which he cites internal conversations between X and advertisers, there are likely a number of unconnected contributors to the site’s loss of ad revenue. In March 2023, the site experienced a 7.7 percent drop in overall traffic, a 3.3 percent drop in unique daily web page users, and a 9.8 percent drop in users from its Android app. Potential reasons for the decline in usage range from the notorious tech issues that have plagued the site since its launch, including a technically fraught campaign announcement from Ron DeSantis. The site has also experienced problems directly connected to its new monetization policies, including “rate limits” to the number of posts unpaid users can read per day and an algorithm that now specifically favors paid subscribers to the site’s $8/month X Premium program (formerly Twitter Blue.) Advertisers are now required to join this program to run any paid promotion.
In other words, would a defamation lawsuit against the ADL really have legs, or is the truth simply that advertisers are being asked to pay more to reach fewer people on a less reliable platform? Don’t expect Musk to run that poll any time soon.