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Civil rights groups attacked by Elon Musk are mounting a counteroffensive

Advocacy groups are rallying to the defense of the Anti-Defamation League and the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
Elon Musk.
Elon Musk at the "Choose France" Summit at the Château de Versailles outside Paris on May 15.Eliot Blondet / SIPA Pool

Anti-hate groups and civil rights organizations vowed this week to strengthen their resolve against hate speech on social media, saying they would not be intimidated by threats of lawsuits from tech billionaire Elon Musk. 

Leaders of several organizations told NBC News that they were gearing up for a long fight with Musk over his management of X, the app formerly known as Twitter. As the app’s owner for nearly a year, Musk has loosened the rules around hate speech and granted a “general amnesty” to many people previously banned, including for posting antisemitism. 

Musk has been picking fights with nonprofit organizations one by one, blaming them for hurting advertising sales at X. In July he sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate, saying its research into hate speech was false or misleading, a claim the center denies. On Monday he made a similar threat of legal action against the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). 

“An attack on the ADL is an attack on all of us,” said Claire Atkin, CEO of Check My Ads, a watchdog group for ways in which the ad industry supports hate speech. 

Anti-hate organizers also said they were disturbed by Musk’s increasing acceptance of antisemitism on X and his decisions to promote people with antisemitic views. Musk faced a similar backlash months ago after he attacked fellow billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish. He said on Monday that he’s against antisemitism of any kind. 

The fight between Musk and civil rights groups began brewing even before he bought Twitter last year for $44 billion, and it has heated up in recent weeks as Musk has turned to the courts to try to rebut criticism that hate speech is spreading more widely on the app. 

Now, other advocacy groups are rallying to the defense of those two groups. 

“That the wealthiest man on the planet is using his money, influence and even legal action to threaten and silence critics, including our coalition partners, is reprehensible,” said Jessica J. González, co-CEO of media watchdog Free Press and a leader of the #StopToxicTwitter coalition. 

The ADL and the Center for Countering Digital Hate are among more than 60 organizations taking part in the #StopToxicTwitter effort, a pressure campaign to persuade corporations not to buy ads on X so long as Musk keeps lax rules around hate speech, harassment and similar behavior that the app’s previous management often cracked down on. 

Large advertisers, in particular, have for years said they don’t want to be associated with objectionable content on social media, forcing change at other platforms such as Facebook. The #StopToxicTwitter coalition is partly an effort to document how extreme X has become under Musk and share that information with corporations.  

In a lengthy statement Wednesday, the #StopToxicTwitter coalition condemned Musk’s attacks and said he alone is to blame for X’s business problems. 

Kaili Lambe, director of policy and advocacy at Accountable Tech, another coalition leader, said Musk’s tactics are bad for X and bad for the internet as a whole. 

“It’s the ultimate hypocrisy that Musk still masquerades as a free-speech absolutist when he’s made it clear he will pull every lever at his disposal to silence his critics,” Lambe said in a statement. 

Representatives for Musk, X and X CEO Linda Yaccarino did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the ongoing fight. 

Other research has found that X has seen a surge in antisemitism under Musk’s ownership. Extremists have viewed Musk’s acquisition as an opportunity to rejoin the app en masse, and references to anti-Jewish tropes — such as the word “globalists” — increased after Twitter accepted his purchase offer last year, according to a report in February from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a nonprofit group that tracks misinformation and hate speech on social media. 

Musk and Yaccarino have claimed that hate speech on X has declined. Outside researchers say it is now much more difficult to judge that claim because X has changed the rules for accessing the app’s data. 

Many of the #StopToxicTwitter coalition members represent marginalized people who are frequently the target of online harassment. The LGBTQ rights organization GLAAD is a member, and it said in a statement Wednesday that Twitter/X was “dead last” in its safety index for good reason. 

“Where there is anti-LGBTQ animus, anti-trans rhetoric, and the flames of violence against queer people and our allies, we also find antisemitism, racism, misogyny, and hatred for all marginalized communities,” GLAAD said in a statement. 

The ADL is a particularly storied anti-hate organization, having been founded in 1913 by American Jews concerned about the spread of antisemitism. Though the ADL’s work has frequently made the group a target for neo-Nazis and other antisemitic groups, it has lately been the subject of a #BanTheADL campaign among some X users. It also works on issues in addition to antisemitism such as threats to democracy post-Jan. 6 and civil rights more generally.

Over the Labor Day holiday weekend, Musk suggested he should run a poll on the question of banning the ADL. It’s the latest example of Musk lurching to the right in his politics, after he earlier embraced fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson and hosted an online event to launch Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign. 

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, noted that Musk’s attacks on his organization occurred on the same weekend as a march in Florida by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, as well as at a time of an overall rise in antisemitism. 

“Musk is engaging with and elevating these antisemites at a time when ADL is tracking a surge of bomb threats and swatting attacks of synagogues and Jewish institutions, dramatic levels of antisemitic propaganda being littered throughout Jewish and non-Jewish residential communities, and extremists marching openly through the streets in Nazi gear,” he said in a statement Tuesday. 

“And so, this behavior is not just alarming nor reckless. It is flat out dangerous and deeply irresponsible,” Greenblatt said. 

A search of X’s archive indicates that Musk’s heightened interest in the ADL is new. Before last month, he had mentioned the ADL in posts only twice. Since Aug. 1, he has mentioned the ADL about 20 times. 

Now, even some of the ADL’s longtime critics are coming to its defense. Seth Mandel, a conservative journalist who is Jewish, said the latest attacks on the ADL are coming from a group of white nationalists sometimes known as “Groypers.” 

“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,” Mandel wrote on X on Monday. Mandel has criticized the ADL in other contexts, alleging that under Greenblatt, it consistently ignores or excuses left-wing antisemitism.

Atkin, whose group Check My Ads is part of the #StopToxicTwitter coalition, said that she thinks Musk is attacking civil society organizations one at a time in an attempt to divide them. She predicted it would backfire. 

“Who next is he going to blame?” she said. “He can’t say, ‘There are 60 organizations and they’re all to blame, and by the way, the whole advertising industry has decided that we’re undermining community safety.’ He can’t say that because it makes him look weak.” 

Kate Cell, senior climate campaign manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, another member of the #StopToxicTwitter effort, said Musk’s legal threats are evidence that the campaign is working. 

“When they complain about you is when you know that you’re having an impact,” she said. 

“Musk is unhappy with what the market is telling him, which is that when you’re selling advertising you’re also selling content moderation,” she said. “He scapegoats people and groups that tell it like they see it.” 

Musk’s alienation from mainstream corporate advertisers was predicted long before he acquired Twitter. After he announced plans to buy the app in April 2022, the advertising industry was immediately wary of his proposals to change the app’s rules on objectionable material.