columnAntisemitism

Boycotting Elon Musk and ‘X’ won’t solve our antisemitism problem

The tech mogul endorsed a hateful meme, yet a restored liberal censorship regime won’t stem the tide of online Jew-hatred. In fact, it might make it worse.

Elon Musk and X, July 26, 2023. Credit: Camilo Concha/Shutterstock.
Elon Musk and X, July 26, 2023. Credit: Camilo Concha/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Ever since he bought Twitter and renamed it “X,” Elon Musk has had a target on his back. That the man who is believed to be the world’s richest person should be unpopular is unremarkable. But for much of the corporate media, Musk is the man who mainstreamed antisemitism. That’s the conceit of a recent Washington Post feature, as well as a raft of other arguments put forward by liberal publications and politicians. And the billionaire owner of the Tesla and SpaceX companies gave it a boost when he endorsed an antisemitic post on X.

He has since walked that back and sought to make amends by banning the terms “decolonization” and “from the river to the sea,” which are rightly considered to be an incitement to genocide of the Jewish people in Israel. That step was welcomed by a broad array of Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, which has been at odds with Musk since his purchase of Twitter. But it hasn’t mollified most of Musk’s left-wing critics. For them, he and former president Donald Trump are—like Iran’s designations of Israel and the United States—the “little” and the “great” Satan. And apologies and positive gestures notwithstanding, they are pushing hard for an advertiser boycott of X.

The left-wing Media Matters organization created a report claiming that X is fomenting antisemitism as part of this campaign to force an exodus of advertisers. But X is suing Media Matters for defamation, claiming that the group created accounts and sought to manipulate the system so as to create the false impression that ads for major corporations were routinely appearing next to antisemitic posts, something the company said is highly unlikely and would normally be screened out by its advertising tools. This demonstrates the lengths that Musk’s critics will go in order to discredit him and the platform.

Their goal is not so much to cancel Musk, as no one in possession of $242.1 billion and one of the largest social-media platforms can be silenced. But they do want to strip X of any but conservative voices and thereby marginalize it in a way that would make it less influential. The objective is to essentially break a company that has always been more of a financial white elephant than an asset.

Whether that would cause Musk to sell or enable Threads, the Twitter knockoff created by Facebook and its billionaire owner Mark Zuckerberg (who is worth a mere $120.4 billion) to replace it as the main venue for political conversations remains debatable. What they really want is, in one form or another, to restore the pre-Musk Twitter status quo in which all of the Big Tech companies were united by a common censorship regime that acted primarily to diminish conservative voices and help liberal candidates.

A pre-Musk censorship regime

But The Washington Post’s assertion—endorsed by the White House—that it was the libertarian-minded Musk who “supercharged” online antisemitism, and thus helped create the sense of insecurity for Jews that has become such a problem since the Hamas atrocities of Oct. 7, is a fallacy. While many Jewish groups argued for more stringent censoring of posts and banning of accounts that spread hate, the situation online prior to Musk’s takeover of Twitter in October 2022 was hardly one in which antisemitism was absent from the platform or the Internet. To the contrary, antisemitic hate was quite common with those preaching the annihilation of Jews, like the leaders of Iran, allowed to post what they liked.

More importantly, what we learned when Musk threw open the company’s files to journalists like Matt Taibbi was that the platform—in cahoots with other Internet companies and the federal government—had enacted what was aptly described as a “censorship industrial complex.” This resulted not merely in successful attempts to interfere in elections, such as the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story in October 2020, but also created a dangerous system of collusion between government agencies and Big Tech with a goal of suppressing dissent from policies and ideas in the virtual public square from those who dissented from the liberal views that prevail in Silicon Valley.

That ended with Musk’s purchase of Twitter. What followed was a confusing mix of policies—from the renaming of the platform and dropping some forms of censorship while allowing others. “Shadow banning”—the practice of suppressing an account without the knowledge of those who operate such accounts—continued. 

Restoring that government-Big Tech collusion is an alarming prospect, but one from which some on the left don’t shrink. And some of the same outlets, like the Post, that are themselves more responsible for mainstreaming hate against Jews than anything Musk has done are using the uptick in online antisemitism over the last year, and especially in the last several weeks, to discredit X.

Musk gave his critics plenty of ammunition when he endorsed a post that claimed “Jewish communties [sic] have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them. I’m deeply disinterested in giving the tiniest s**t now about western Jewish populations coming to the disturbing realization that those hordes of minorities that support flooding their country don’t exactly like them too much.”

This is a pernicious lie. Jews were not responsible for foisting critical race theory or intersectionality—the toxic leftist ideologies that promote division, and falsely label Jews and Israel as “white” oppressors—on the country. Sadly, some Jews did support it. But such ideas were primarily promoted by African-American scholarly charlatans like Ibram X. Kendi, and then legitimized by non-Jewish writers like Robin DiAngelo and The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah Jones, the author of that paper’s fraudulent “1619 Project.” And a significant portion of Jewish opinion consistently opposed it.

If some Jews have finally come to understand just how dangerous woke ideology is now that it has fueled a tsunami of antisemitic mobs on the streets of American cities and on college campuses, those who have always opposed such ideas should welcome them as much-needed allies in an important fight. The only reason why some on the right—like Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens—aren’t outraged by these attacks on Jews is because they are enablers of antisemitism as much as they are critics of the left.

For Musk to endorse such views was inexcusable. His mercurial personality and impulsiveness mean that he cannot be relied upon to consistently stand up against hate or for free speech. That such a person has so much power is regrettable. But that is no truer for Musk than it is for Facebook’s Zuckerberg or any of the other Silicon Valley oligarchs who have more control over public discourse than the media moguls of the past when newspapers, radio and television were the main mediums, could have ever dreamed of possessing.

The real source of the antisemitic surge

Still, Musk’s decision to rightly ban those phrases associated with the leftist-supported Palestinian project to commit genocide against Israel and its Jews is an important step that demonstrates that he is at the very least open to being persuaded about the importance of not enabling hate. It also highlights the fact that if we want to really understand why the barbaric atrocities of Oct. 7 set off a wave of antisemitic invective, as well as intimidation and violence against Jews in this country, it’s not because some marginal lunatics have been able to post hate online because of Musk’s decisions.

Part of the problem is the way other social-media platforms like TikTok, which is controlled by the tyrants of the Chinese Communist Party, have created algorithms that have promoted antisemitism, as well as hatred for Israel and Jews. People like actor Sacha Baron Cohen have argued that more restrictions were needed on other platforms in ways that probably supported that “censorship industrial complex” rather than aided the fight against antisemitism. But he and other concerned Jewish celebrities weren’t wrong to call out the way that TikTok has become an engine for Jew-hatred.

More importantly, the real force behind the recent surge in Jew-hatred is precisely those institutions that have supported toxic left-wing ideologies demonizing Israel and Jews. And for that, we can look no further than newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times, which routinely platform those who support those ideologies, in addition to the attacks on Israel and the Jews that Musk has belatedly sought to banish from his platform. That the Post’s own global opinions editor and columnist Karen Attiah is a champion of “decolonizing” Israel, which in practice means the ethnic cleansing of that country’s indigenous people (the Jews), only makes their broadsides against Musk all the more ironic.

There are no easy answers to the question of how to deal with the spike in antisemitism. That the Internet and social media have become sewers of hate is nothing new. But what makes it so alarming is that they are not limited to radical extremists posting material from the right or even those on the left that have made the Osama bin Laden “letter” that blames Israel and the Jews for the Islamist war on the West go viral. Rather, the respected universities, mainstream journalists and progressive politicians have made the question of whether Jews ought to be subjected to mass murder an issue that is to be “debated” rather than deplored.

Going back to the pre-Musk censorship regime may eventually make it far worse since the people designing the algorithms and making the decisions about banning or shadow-banning accounts for these companies are far more sympathetic to the Israel-haters than to those who wish to eliminate online antisemitism. So long as those who support the destruction of Israel are prepared to rationalize or even justify Hamas terrorism are treated as respectable voices—and their views considered legitimate opinion rather than hate—the current atmosphere in which antisemitism is already spiking is only going to worsen.

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

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