After “rehabilitating” accounts of far-right and anti-Semitic groups, Musk links his victimization to the most toxic elements of the right.
Elon Musk, one of the richest people on the planet, who recently grabbed the spotlight for his acquisition of social networking platform X, formerly Twitter, is now citing a new excuse for the company’s “poor” performance after its takeover last year. The problem, according to Mr. Musk, is the Jews.
In an outburst via his platform last week, Mr Musk claimed – without providing any evidence – that Twitter’s ad revenue had fallen by 60% “largely due to pressure from @ADL advertisers” – namely the Anti-Defamation League – which, he said, “is trying to destroy the platform by falsely accusing both her and me of anti-Semitism.”
Although the platform has long been seen as a cesspool of lies, hate speech and a significant neo-Nazi user base, under former CEO Jack Dorsey, Twitter began taking steps to block extreme provocateurs and overtly racist and anti-Semitic users. A 2018 ADL report notes that 4.2 million anti-Semitic posts were shared or re-shared on the platform in the previous year, before Twitter implemented its ban on extremist accounts. Mr. Musk has largely lifted those rules, in the name of free speech. The reactivation of extremist accounts—and a new algorithm that prioritizes posts from “verified” users who pay more than $8 a month to the company—X has become a stepping stone for the most toxic elements of the white nationalist right.
Mr Musk also blamed ADL for precipitating the company’s valuation – currently estimated at 1/3 of the $44bn Mr Musk paid to acquire the platform – adding that he was considering legal action against the ADL and making it clear that he favored the organization’s block on the X platform.
Mr. Musk insists that his claims are not anti-Semitic, nor does he harbor hatred for Jews. However, over the past week he has launched a series of personal attacks on ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt, accusing him of lying about the organization’s political influence.
Attacks by far-right groups, with various smears, against the ADL have a long history. In the late 1950s, Russell Maguire, owner of the right-wing magazine American Mercury, claimed that Jewish groups had falsely accused him and his magazine of anti-Semitism – and, like Mr Musk, suggested they were orchestrating a boycott against him. A few years later, in the mid-1960s, Robert Welch, leader of the far-right John Birch Society, similarly argued that the ADL had unfairly tarnished the movement’s reputation by claiming that it harbored anti-Semites in its ranks.
The ADL was undoubtedly highly critical of the two men – but for good reason. Mr. Maguire was, in fact, an ardent anti-Semite. He vehemently defended the authenticity of the notorious anti-Semitic text “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” through his magazine. Mr. Welch was forced, largely under pressure from the ADL, to “purge” the John Birch Society of its most ardent his anti-Semites, in 1966. Since Mr. Musk has rehabilitated and promoted many accounts of overtly anti-Semitic and white nationalist groups since taking over the platform, his attacks on the ADL perpetuate that tradition.
The Anti-Defamation League is not the only organization that monitors far-right rhetoric, nor is it the only one that has drawn the ire of Mr. Musk and far-right online groups on Twitter. The Southern Poverty Law Center, founded by civil rights activists in the 1970s and employing a team of researchers who track and document right-wing extremist groups, has long been a target of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but the anti-sectarian organization has not has yet been targeted by Mr. Musk.
The reason, in part, is that the ADL has, until relatively recently, taken an ambivalent—even supportive—position toward Mr. Musk. In 2022, the ADL’s Mr. Greenblatt praised the billionaire businessman. Speaking on CNBC, Mr. Greenblatt called Mr. Musk “an amazing entrepreneur, a great innovator. He’s the Henry Ford of our time.”
Henry Ford, of course, became famous as the mastermind behind the Ford Motor Company. And, like Mr. Musk, Ford was indeed a celebrity. In the same way that Mr. Musk’s fans on Twitter praise the company SpaceX that will lead humanity to a “cosmic future”, Ford was considered the “Apostle” of industrial modernity. Joseph Stalin, in the 1920s, wanted to “recruit” experts from the Ford Motor Company to help industrialize the Soviet Union. Author Aldous Huxley set his dystopian novel “Brave New World” in the “AD” era. (after Ford).
Mr. Ford was also—along with Charles Lindbergh—one of the most notorious anti-Semites in 20th-century America, and Mr. Greenblatt was roundly criticized by liberals and leftists for not mentioning this fact.
Aside from this inane comparison of Mr. Musk to Henry Ford by Mr. Greenblatt, the ADL has rightly taken up the case of Twitter, which has become one of the world’s leading forums for anti-Semitism since Mr. Musk bought it. Twitter’s free-speech-for-all policy, while enabling previously marginalized voices to gain access to the media, has also given a platform to staunch anti-Semites and racists, who had previously been confined to platforms for “true believers.” Twitter isn’t the only social media platform flirting with extremism—Facebook also gained a reputation as a disinformation outlet during the 2016 presidential election—but it’s seen as having a unique way of shaping media rhetoric.
How to explain Mr. Musk’s dubious decision? It doesn’t take much of a brain to think that a wealthy businessman—who deeply believes he has a “messianic mission” to uplift humanity, and who is under intense and sustained criticism for his political and business acumen for the first time in decades— he may believe that some “nefarious forces” are trying to undermine him. And what makes him not just a scapegoat but the target of a broad conspiracy is the feeling that Mr. Musk and his “followers” have that criticism of him endangers the utopian future of humanity. This feeling, in combined with the fact that Mr. Musk has been heavily promoting the Twitter accounts of far-right, white nationalist and anti-Semitic groups since he first took over, it creates an explosive mix: of his own sense of victimhood with the conspiratorial anti-Semitism of its most toxic elements. right
X, or Twitter, despite losing a significant portion of its value due to Mr. Musk’s ineptitude and having to compete with rivals such as Meta’s Threads, remains the most influential social media platform in shaping news. As Kanye West, also known for his anti-Semitic statements, said, “nobody should have that much power.”
The Republican Party already has a serious problem, with some members of its campaign staff openly peddling anti-Semitic and nationalist narratives. Mr. Musk blaming Jews for his own disastrous business decisions in how to run one of the most influential social media platforms on the planet is just adding fuel to the fire.
*David Austin Walsh is a postdoctoral fellow in the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism and author of Reclaiming America: The Conservative Movement and the Far Right.
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