Elon Musk's 'frivolous' but precedent-setting free speech fight with Media Matters

The lawsuit is just the latest in Musk's ongoing tension with social media watchdogs

X (formerly Twitter) CEO Elon Musk
Musk has been facing increasing criticism over the extremist content on his platform
(Image credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth / Getty Images)

Elon Musk is once again at the center of a free speech battle after following up on threats to file a "thermonuclear" lawsuit against Media Matters for America, "the progressive watchdog he has been publicly feuding with for days," The Hill reported. The lawsuit comes after Media Matters reported that Musk's platform X, formerly known as Twitter, placed advertisements for major brands like Apple and IBM "next to content that touts Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party.” 

The case also comes as Musk faces scrutiny for endorsing an antisemitic post on X that accused Jewish communities of pushing "hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them." Musk replied to the post, "You have said the actual truth." Amid all the backlash, a number of advertisers began pulling their content from the platform. 

Some members of the GOP seemed eager to rush to the tech mogul's defense. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) announced that his office would be investigating Media Matters for "potential fraudulent activity" over its report. His announcement came shortly after the lawsuit was filed in a Texas federal court, alleging the liberal watchdog  "manipulated the algorithms" on the platform in order to produce the reports and "alienate advertisers."

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The case is 'bogus,' and it could backfire on Musk

Several legal experts have dismissed the lawsuit against Media Matters as a reach. The case is weak and seems to be a “bogus” attempt to stop criticism in a way that “flatly contradicts basic First Amendment principles,” Ted Boutrous, a First Amendment attorney, told CNN. He added that the lawsuit could backfire on X if Media Matters decided to seek internal information that could damage the social media company's reputation during the discovery phase. 

The case also has “fatal flaws,” including the fact that the company admits that the ads did actually appear next to extremist content, said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas and a CNN contributor. Regardless of how Media Matters discovered this, this concession could prove fatal for X. The lawsuit confirms that "the thing Media Matters was making a big deal about actually happened,” Vladeck said. “Most companies wouldn't want their ads running next to neo-Nazi content even once and wouldn't care about the exact percentage of users who were encountering such side-by-side placement.”

These retaliatory lawsuits "quite clearly are triggered not by an offense, but by Musk losing advertisers," Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), another nonprofit watchdog group that X is also suing, told Wired. He worries that these types of lawsuits could have a “chilling effect” on organizations monitoring the platform. Ultimately, choosing to fight nonprofits could backfire on Musk, and people must understand that "this is a man that you're doing business with," he added, "and that if you advertise on that platform, you're essentially endorsing the behavior.”

Republicans' defense of Musk is more ominous than it seems

Even though legal experts dismiss the case as an "effort to bully a prominent critic into silence," some lawmakers on the right "apparently see this as a feature, not a bug," Greg Sargent wrote for The Washington Post. "They are allying themselves with Musk's effort for precisely this purpose." Republican's rapid defense of Musk "takes on an uglier cast" when you consider that Musk's recent comments likely played a significant role in advertisers leaving the platform despite targeting Media Matters as the sole reason, Greg Sargent added. The tech mogul's recent controversy over the apparent endorsement of antisemitic rhetoric is being dismissed as a conspiracy theory, "but it's more than that," Sargent opined. It is part of a pattern of behavior that "reflects an ideological turn among certain tech oligarchs" that "aims to place vast technological prowess at the service of reactionary and authoritarian politics," he noted. 

Therefore, when GOP lawmakers promise to lob state power against Musk critics, "they aren't merely promising to shield this billionaire's business interests from his own expressions of antisemitism." They are also using their power "to corruptly protect someone who is marshaling his immense power over our information ecosystem to privilege and elevate that worldview."

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