Media Matters for America, a non-profit watchdog best known for targeting Fox News, disputed Elon Musk’s claims in a lawsuit that it used a bad faith campaign to maliciously scare away major advertisers from X and reserves the right to counter sue the tycoon.
Speaking to Fortune, the organization’s chairman and president refuted Musk’s allegations that MMFA manipulated and gamed the platform’s algorithm to manufacture a set of results showing that X was unsafe for brands by featuring their ads next to neo-Nazi content. In response, IBM led a wave of prominent advertiser defections and the White House issued a rare, full-throated criticism of Musk’s conduct.
“We didn’t cherry-pick our data,” Angelo Carusone said in an interview, claiming any search of the hashtag #WhiteNationalism on X would yield similar results. “The filters they say they have are not working the way they say they should.”
Now the MMFA chair is weighing up his legal options in response, including whether to fight back against Musk’s team of lawyers. Carusone, who calls the lawsuit filed on Monday “frivolous“, said his organization would reserve all legal options to defend itself. He said this could include potentially countersuing Musk for attempting to shut down protected speech, what’s known in legal terms as an anti-SLAPP lawsuit.
X is not the only social media site to feature unsafe content, Carusone readily concedes, but it is the outlier when it comes to lacking some of the very basic guardrails for content moderation.
“Elon Musk has gutted the brand safety division, it doesn’t exist in any functional way,” he said. “Yes, these kinds of things pop up all over the place, but other platforms have mechanisms and internal controls to respond to them,” he said. “Whereas X, on the other hand, not only doesn’t have those controls, but as evidenced by Elon Musk’s own conduct, the rot seems to go all the way to the top.”
The split second court opens on Monday, X Corp will be filing a thermonuclear lawsuit against Media Matters and ALL those who colluded in this fraudulent attack on our company pic.twitter.com/55vl7PspaQ
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 18, 2023
By its own account, MMFA is not an impartial watchdog, stating its mission is to monitor, analyze and correct “conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” This puts it in a similar category as pressure groups like CAMERA and HonestReporting, which also parse media coverage from the vantage point of a particular agenda.
Nonetheless, Musk reached straight for hyperbole on Monday by calling MMFA “pure evil.” He pledged to file not just any lawsuit but a “thermonuclear” one at that after the non-profit’s report prompted an exodus of advertisers.
Notable departures included heavy hitters like Apple—one of the biggest customers of X—as well as other blue chips such as Sony, Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount. Tellingly, X CEO Linda Yaccarino couldn’t even stop her own previous employer, NBCUniversal, from pulling its spots despite her decade-plus ties to the Comcast subsidiary.
Inconsistent policies on free speech
This critical report, not the first from MMFA regarding X, proved so combustible precisely because Musk had sympathized just one day earlier with what many felt was a bigoted post accusing Jews of hating white people and perpetuating the Great Replacement theory. This alleges ethnic minorities are actively conspiring to marginalize America’s dominant white population.
I just did a search for the hashtag #.heilhitler and within a minute I saw an ad for an official German government page @MakeitinGermany served alongside a post celebrating Hitler pic.twitter.com/L9ZMO9c0lM
— steven monacelli (@stevanzetti) November 21, 2023
Since this theory played a key role in the deadly mass shootings of Jews in Pittsburgh synagogue and Blacks in a Buffalo supermarket, even the White House felt it necessary to censure Musk for his ill-advised endorsement.
In a likely move designed to squash any further speculation that Musk may harbor latent anti-semitic tendencies, the X owner declared on Friday the pro-Palestinian call for “decolonization” in connection with Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza to be tantamount to a call for genocide punishable with a ban.
“He’s not really a free speech person. If he was, his position on this would have been a lot more consistent,” Carusone argued. “I think he was trying to insulate himself from criticism by doing something performative.”
This arbitrary tendency to make policy up on the fly is part of the reason why advertisers are rightly so skittish, the MMFA chairman. When asked about Musk’s unilateral ruling during Pride Month that calling anyone “cis” on X could be construed as a slur punishable with a suspension, Carusone agreed that it was no accident. “What I do know is that he’s engaged in malicious cruelty for no reason at all against people that clearly have a lot less power than him.”
I don’t always post that I agree with antisemitic content…
…but when I do, I wait a weekend & then sue media matters for saying my site boosts antisemitic content.
— John Fugelsang (@JohnFugelsang) November 21, 2023
Carusone instead accuses Musk of intentionally draping his increasingly conservative worldview with high-minded principles, like a defense of the First Amendment, to avoid any consequences.
‘Frivolous’ lawsuit filed in a Musk-friendly jurisdiction
On Monday, Musk filed the lawsuit against MMFA in U.S. District Court in Texas, seeking unspecified damages and specifically demanding a trial by jury in the deeply red jurisdiction.
The legal strategy is somewhat unconventional, however. X operates out of San Francisco and is legally incorporated in Nevada, so one might expect the lawsuit to be filed in either of those two states.
Yet Musk sought out a state that coincidentally happens to be home to the headquarters of both Tesla and SpaceX, justifying the choice by arguing the campaign also affected companies and users located in the Republican-run Lone Star State, although that argument could apply to virtually any jurisdiction in the country.
Fraud has both civil & criminal penalties pic.twitter.com/BdC5Zfr1XM
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 21, 2023
On Monday, Musk also reposted a statement from Texas attorney general Ken Paxton saying his taxpayer-funded office would launch a criminal investigation into MMFA. Paxton himself is a controversial figure, impeached but not removed by the Texas legislature in September following 16 counts of bribery and corruption.
“At the same time that Elon Musk is calling himself a free speech champion, he’s egging on state attorney generals to prosecute me. That is saying to the government you should punish someone for something you don’t like,” countered Carusone.
Neither Elon Musk nor X responded to a request from Fortune for comment.
The MMFA chairman vowed his non-profit would not in any way back down or be cowed by Musk’s legal threats and would continue advocating for greater brand security irrespective of the civil lawsuit.
“He can scapegoat one research piece all he wants,” he said, “but fundamentally the problem is with him and X, not with us.”
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