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Antisemitism won’t be stopped by censoring Musk’s X

The billionaire is wrong to single out the ADL for attacks on his platform and enabling far-right Jew-haters. Yet Jewish security can’t be assured by threatening free speech.

Elon Musk, June 16, 2023. Credit: Frederic Legrand-COMEO/Shutterstock.
Elon Musk, June 16, 2023. Credit: Frederic Legrand-COMEO/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Elon Musk may have thought that he was being shaken down by the Anti-Defamation League. But even though he believes that he’s turned the tables on the group, it turns out that he’s given them a priceless in-kind contribution after all.

By focusing all of his fire on the ADL as part of an effort to fend off a campaign to starve the platform formerly known as Twitter (now called “X”) of advertising, and by engaging with accounts that are clearly antisemitic and even blaming them for antisemitism, Musk has allowed the organization not just to play the victim in this dispute. He’s enabled them to change the subject from the way ADL has been part of the push for Big Tech censorship of political viewpoints to one about enabling Jew-hatred. In so doing, Musk has played right into the hands of ADL CEO and national president Jonathan Greenblatt, and given critics of his effort to use X to protect free speech on the Internet a weapon with which they can discredit him as well as the anti-censorship cause.

The recent dustup began over the course of the week when, in the aftermath of a meeting between the ADL and an X executive, Musk began publicly attacking the organization for its aggressive efforts to force the company to ban certain accounts. In various posts, he supported attacks on the ADL by right-wing antisemites like Keith Woods and Alex Jones, claiming that the group is itself the “biggest generators of antisemitism on this platform.” He then followed that up with a post that claimed: “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!”

That, in turn, helped fuel a surge of vile antisemitic screeds on X supporting the #BanTheADL hashtag that X allowed to trend on the platform.

An avalanche of antisemitism

For the ADL, this proves the point they have been trying to flog for the past year, ever since Musk bought Twitter. Greenblatt has been saying all along that dropping the company’s censorship policies was a green light for hate. Musk’s decision to target the ADL has produced exactly the kind of avalanche of antisemitic posts that seem to vindicate the ADL’s pro-censorship arguments.

As columnist Daniel Greenfield has rightly pointed out, there is something sinister about the way that Musk chose to single out ADL as the main actor seeking to demonetize X. Some 40 organizations, including ADL, GLAAD, the NAACP, Muslim Advocates, National Hispanic Media Coalition and United Church of Christ, urged an advertiser boycott of Twitter after the Musk takeover, in addition to 60 other leftist groups that are part of a #StopToxicTwitter coalition. But Musk only threatened to sue ADL, and his posts amplified the voices of some of the worst extremists, including the disgusting Jew-hating “Groypers” led by Nick Fuentes.

I’ve written many articles over the last several years about how Greenblatt has helped transform the ADL from a nonpartisan Jewish defense organization into an auxiliary group for the Democratic Party. Washington Examiner magazine editor Seth Mandel has also consistently been outspoken along these lines and was subjected to a vicious social-media campaign egged on by the group for doing so. But he was right when he posted on X in the aftermath of the recent Musk-ADL exchanges that, “The groypers tweeting ‘ban the ADL’ are bad people with bad intentions and bad designs. Don’t be fooled, don’t “consider their argument,” they are ghouls who hate you. No nuance.” He also noted that “the ADL and I are arguing over how to keep Jews alive. The groypers want us all gone.”

Musk is a mercurial figure hard to pigeonhole in any one political slot. He seemed to be motivated by a desire to overturn the social-media censorship regime when he paid $44 billion for Twitter in a deal that was completed in October 2022. The purchase price was vastly overinflated, and since then, Musk has struggled to keep the platform’s enormous financial losses under control. But there is little doubt that his grand gesture was a response to a genuine problem.

Big Tech censorship

The public learned a great deal when he opened up the company’s files to journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, Lee Fang, Michael Shellenberger, David Zweig and Alex Berenson shortly after the sale was completed. Taibbi and Weiss coordinated the publication of the documents with Musk, releasing details of the files as a series of threads known as the Twitter Files. What they found was a shocking pattern of censorship of conservatives and critics of government COVID policies on the platform, as well as collusion with the Biden administration in silencing views they didn’t like. They also helped unravel the story of how Big Tech companies like Twitter coordinated with Democrats and others to silence reporting about the corrupt business practices of President Joe Biden’s family in the weeks before the 2020 election.

As I wrote in the weeks after the Musk purchase, the pushback he got from the ADL, and other left-wing and liberal groups, was purportedly about hate speech but really about something else. In its current guise in which it has become more of a biased attack group rather than one devoted to defending the Jews, ADL was part of the effort to censor right-wing views.

Its work consulting with Silicon Valley giants like PayPal, Facebook and Twitter demonstrated that it was part of a combined assault on the part of liberal activists, corporations and the government against free speech and not a defense of democracy, let alone a campaign devoted to expunging hate from the Internet. As such, though they represent themselves as fighting tirelessly against extremists, the impact of their efforts posed as much a threat to freedom as many of the nutcases that it singles out as arguments in favor of their censorship goals. Yet pursuing this path was immensely profitable for ADL, both in terms of the corporate contributions it was able to solicit and the power it gave them.

At the same time, it is important to note that in the 11 months since he took control of Twitter, Musk has proven to be anything but a steadfast defender of freedom. He sounded the right notes at the start, indicating that he understood that ownership of the platform gave him effective control of the world’s virtual public square. That’s a position of enormous power that—as his predecessors at the company proved—could lead to great harm.

But since then, he has broken with the journalists who uncovered the Twitter files he had opened to them. It’s also far from clear that some of the same problems that plagued Twitter have been thrown out along with much of the old staff. Shadow banning—the silencing of some voices, whether by an algorithm or individual action without the knowledge of the person affected—of conservative opinion accounts seems to have continued.

And rather than take on some of the larger leftist groups that have been pushing for advertiser boycotts of the platform, he preferred to ally himself with antisemites by trying to make the argument solely about the ADL.

It’s the same sort of bad judgment that led him to rebrand the company from Twitter and its eponymous tweets to calling it X, a bizarre blunder that may be among the worst marketing decisions in the history of modern business.

Who can we trust?

In short, it’s clear that Musk can’t be trusted to be the guardian of free speech he wants us to think he is. Yet no matter how disappointing his conduct has proved to be, none of that justifies the ADL’s desire to reinstate the old Twitter censorship of conservatives.

This is a debate that has been raging for the past four years since actor/comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was given a platform by the ADL to push for more censorship on Facebook in the name of eradicating antisemitism. He argued that social-media companies should be booting Jew-haters off of their platforms, and their failure to do so was fueling a surge in antisemitism.

The problem with that point of view was proven in the following years as Big Tech began to listen to him. Instead of just banning lunatics and trolls like the Groypers, the Silicon Valley oligarchs who run these companies put in place practices that enabled wide-ranging censorship of political viewpoints on a range of subjects from conservatives, including pushback against authoritarian and pointless government policies that aimed at curbing the coronavirus pandemic.

For all of my disagreements with Greenblatt and the ADL, there can be no compromise with or rationalization of the likes of Jones, Woods, Fuentes and his Groypers. Still, that shouldn’t be interpreted as a justification of ADL’s position on Internet censorship. While social-media platforms are within their rights to shut down accounts that promote hatred, they seem incapable of doing so without engaging in censorship of legitimate political stances.

The ADL’s own attacks on conservative opinion on the Internet, such as the Libs of TikTok’s Chaya Rachick, gives the lie to any claims from the organization that they support free speech for those that hold views they oppose.

The world would be better off if the Jew-haters were silenced, but we can’t trust the ADL or Big Tech censors to do so without engaging in conduct that undermines the freedom of expression that is essential to democracy. It’s difficult to weigh the right balance between these two concerns, but as much as Musk is deserving of criticism for conduct that can be justly described as enabling antisemitism, that shouldn’t be treated as a vindication of ADL’s position or its pose as the arbiter of what should or shouldn’t be allowed to be posted online. Jewish security can’t be obtained at the cost of sacrificing free speech.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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