July 24, 2024

Elon Musk’s social media company, X, sued Media Matters for America and one of its staff members Monday over an investigative report the progressive watchdog organization published saying Nazi content ran on the X app alongside advertisements from major corporations. 

News of the lawsuit coincided with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s announcing an investigation into Media Matters for possible fraudulent activity. 

“We are examining the issue closely to ensure that the public has not been deceived by the schemes of radical left-wing organizations who would like nothing more than to limit freedom by reducing participation in the public square,” Paxton said in a news release that Musk also posted to X.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said Sunday on X that his team was also looking into the matter. Bailey and Paxton are Republicans. 

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Fort Worth, Texas, seeks unspecified damages, as well as an order from the court for Media Matters to remove the article. 

Media Matters President Angelo Carusone said the website would defend itself. 

“This is a frivolous lawsuit meant to bully X’s critics into silence. Media Matters stands behind its reporting and looks forward to winning in court,” he said in a statement. 

The lawsuit is a major escalation of a fight involving Musk, his critics and X’s shaky relationship with advertisers. Musk set off a firestorm last Wednesday when he published comments on X embracing a conspiracy theory that many consider antisemitic, and Media Matters published its report the next day saying Nazi posts had run next to ads from Apple, IBM and other companies. 

Many of those advertisers have paused their spending on X in response to the report. (They include Comcast and NBCUniversal. Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is the parent company of NBC News.)

In the lawsuit, X alleges that Media Matters’ portrayal of the app is untrue because its article did not reflect what typical users see. 

“Media Matters knowingly and maliciously manufactured side-by-side images depicting advertisers’ posts on X Corp.’s social media platform beside Neo-Nazi and white-nationalist fringe content and then portrayed these manufactured images as if they were what typical X users experience on the platform,” the lawsuit says. 

The intention was to harm X’s advertising sales, according to the suit.

Media Matters, a nonprofit website, was founded in 2004 by David Brock, a former right-wing journalist who became a Democrat in the 1990s and is now a political consultant and commentator.  

The lawsuit also names as a defendant Eric Hananoki, a senior investigative reporter at Media Matters and the author of the article. Hananoki did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The lawsuit makes a few specific legal claims. One is that Media Matters “intentionally interfered with contracts” between X and its advertisers. A second is that the website disparaged X with false statements and that it did so “with clear malice, well aware of their falsity.” And the third is that it unlawfully interfered with business relationships. 

Under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech as interpreted by the Supreme Court, plaintiffs who are public figures must prove actual malice by other parties to win claims like defamation. 

Daxton Stewart, a journalism professor at Texas Christian University and a lawyer, said the lawsuit was “frivolous.” He said that although the lawsuit is framed as defending free speech, it would do the opposite by penalizing a website. 

“The huge problem is the First Amendment,” Stewart wrote in an email. “They’re asking a court to order the takedown of clearly protected commentary, and trying to escape the obvious First Amendment issues with that by cloaking it in contract interference language that suggests advertisers left the platform because of a Media Matters report rather than, say, their own judgment at seeing what Twitter has become.” 

“It’s utter nonsense, of course, but that’s the way these self-described free speech warriors operate today,” he added. “The goal is to chill free speech, and we can only hope it doesn’t work.” 

Musk and X do not dispute that Nazi material exists on the app, and Musk has defended its presence as evidence of free speech. In a statement he posted Friday, he said that of the nine posts highlighted by Media Matters, only one violated X’s content policies. He said X had limited the reach of that post. 

The posts highlighted by Media Matters included a denial that the Holocaust happened, a quote about truth attributed to Adolf Hitler next to a photo of him and a post saying the rise of Nazism was a “spiritual awakening.”