In a shocking turn, Elon Musk’s endorsement of an antisemitic conspiracy theory sparked a cascade of consequences for his social media platform, X. As major corporations like IBM, Apple, and Disney suspended ads, Musk’s controversial tweets drew ire for promoting far-right ideologies. A political shift in Musk’s online presence since 2020 reveals an embrace of right-wing views, culminating in a 60% revenue drop for X. Now, faced with a backlash, Musk attempts to rally support among his right-wing followers to counter the financial fallout.
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How Elon Musk Spent Three Years Falling Down a Red-Pilled Rabbit Hole
By Max Chafkin and Daniel Zuidijk
Elon Musk’s tweet endorsing an antisemitic conspiracy theory seemed to take his business partners by surprise. On Nov. 15 he responded to a social media user who articulated a version of the racist “great replacement theory,” which says that Jews are secretly conspiring with immigrants to destroy White culture. The idea was the inspiration for the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. “You have said the actual truth,” Musk wrote.
The next day, International Business Machines Corp. announced it was suspending ads on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter, citing a separate report from Media Matters for America on antisemitism on the platform. Apple, Disney, Lionsgate and the European Commission all soon followed. A White House spokesman accused Musk of repeating “the hideous lie behind the most fatal act of antisemitism in American history.” President Joe Biden later posted for the first time on Threads, Meta Platforms Inc.’s X competitor.
If the outcry over Musk’s behavior is putting renewed pressure on an already beleaguered company, it shouldn’t have come as a shock. A review of Musk’s social media usage since 2020 shows a political shift that began during the Covid-19 lockdowns, then seemed to intensify dramatically in recent months as he spent more time interacting with accounts associated with White nationalism. Imran Ahmed, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that’s been critical of Musk, says X’s owner is “one of those odd people with a classic case of Twitter brain,” using a term describing how social media narrows one’s worldview.
Musk generally responds to such comments with vitriol, and sometimes lawsuits. Earlier this year, X sued the CCDH, accusing it of deliberately harming the company’s advertising business. (Ahmed’s group says the lawsuit is meritless.) Musk has denied being antisemitic. He’s blamed the recent outrage on Media Matters, announcing a “thermonuclear lawsuit” that contends the Media Matters report was manufactured. Media Matters calls the lawsuit frivolous. Neither X nor Musk responded to requests for comment.
Musk also attacked the companies that have begun boycotting X, pointing to IBM’s history of doing business with Nazi Germany. In the face of pressure from advertising executives who called for her to step down in protest, according to a report in Forbes, X CEO Linda Yaccarino railed against “detractors and fabricated distractions” in a post on X. She has said she remains committed to the company.
The first sign of Musk’s embrace of the right came in May 2020 when he told his millions of Twitter followers to “take the red pill,” a common way to refer to accepting a right-wing worldview. By then, Musk had been raging about stay-at-home restrictions for months, but he was still largely seen as a left-of-center capitalist known for his environmentalism. The tweet prompted a raft of explainers about red-pilling and drew cheers from Republicans. “Taken!” wrote Ivanka Trump. But some of the most enthusiastic responses—and the ones that ultimately caught Musk’s attention—came from more extreme provocateurs, including Mike Cernovich, Robby Starbuck and someone who goes by the handle Catturd.
Musk responded positively to the attention and made several other gestures toward the far right in the months that followed. By the end of the year, the billionaire had cited misinformation about Covid, mocked the idea of using they/them pronouns and complained that the left was becoming too extreme. His engagement with right-wing Twitter accounts accelerated as he began looking to buy the company and really picked up after the deal closed.
Musk began replying to dozens of right-wing posts each week as his interests broadened. He might respond to a post promoting some fringe political view with a single word—“Interesting”—an exclamation point or, another favorite, the laughing-while-crying emoji. These interactions boosted his standing with the far right and created incentives for those accounts to try to attract his attention. Musk is X’s most popular user, with nearly 164 million followers, and he can bring huge viewership to an account by replying to one of its posts, making the content eligible to show in any feed that follows Musk.
An early beneficiary was Ian Miles Cheong, a self-described independent journalist who focuses on culture-war issues. Cheong, whose fixations include issues such as crimes committed by Black people and the perceived degradation of San Francisco, had about 300,000 followers when Musk began responding to his posts. He now has nearly 850,000. Cheong responded to the increased visibility by explicitly courting Musk. In recent months, he’s praised the Musk-owned chatbot Grok, backed up Musk’s attacks on Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and injected himself into a feud between Musk and Bill Gates.
Musk reversed bans on extremist users such as “Stop the Steal” advocate Ali Alexander and neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. He also replaced the company’s “blue check” verification system, which was designed to identify prominent politicians, celebrities and journalists, with a new one that allowed anyone to pay for the same status. In February, Musk announced X would share ad revenue with verified users, and it began doing so with a number of controversial figures. Besides Cheong, who boasted about receiving more than $16,000, X began paying an account called End Wokeness, which frequently posts White nationalist memes, and Andrew Tate, a self-proclaimed misogynist who’s under house arrest in Romania for allegations that include rape and human trafficking. In July, Tate, who has denied wrongdoing, posted a screenshot showing that X had paid him more than $20,000 in advertising revenue.
In October 2022, Musk shared a link to an article endorsing a conspiracy theory about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband that posited the attacker was a male prostitute. There was no evidence supporting this idea, which turned out to be false, but lots of people in right-wing circles were talking about it. He later deleted the post about the Pelosi attack. This July, Musk implied the Covid vaccine might have been responsible for a cardiac arrest suffered by LeBron James’ then-18-year-old son, Bronny, amplifying a persistent (and false) theory that the vaccine was causing many fatal heart problems. Doctors later attributed the young man’s cardiac arrest to a congenital heart defect.
Musk’s posts have taken on a more strident tone in recent months. The same week he endorsed the great replacement theory, he repeatedly replied to tweets containing videos and memes suggesting that White people were under attack, that the US was being invaded by immigrants or that immigrants should all be deported. Musk, himself an immigrant from South Africa, also endorsed a post describing the country of his birth, which ended its system of racial apartheid in the 1990s, as “an anti-White apartheid state.”
Musk’s heightened far-right engagement continued even after the outcry over his great replacement tweet, with Musk responding to a tweet about American slavery by suggesting that educators were exaggerating its historical import—“throughout history, the vast majority of people have been in slaves in one form or another!” he wrote in a reply to right-wing influencer Ashley St. Clair. Musk’s fans have responded with messages of solidarity, with Tate, the accused sex trafficker, offering $1 million per month in advertising spending and the far-right podcaster Tim Pool offering $250,000.
The pledges highlight just how big a hole Musk has dug for himself at X. Apple alone spent $48 million on Twitter during the first quarter of 2022, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post. Now Apple is gone, at least temporarily; X’s revenue is down 60%; and Musk is making up for it by trying to rally support among his right-wing admirers. On Nov. 17 he wrote that many of the largest advertisers—presumably referring to some of the companies that had paused spending—“are the greatest oppressors of your right to free speech.” That message might have felt satisfying to blurt out, but it’s unlikely to persuade those companies to come back anytime soon.
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