Since Elon Musk took possession of Twitter last year — after unsuccessfully trying to back out of its purchase — changes to the platform have ranged from obvious to subtle. It’s now called “X,” for inexplicable reasons, and the system of using check marks to indicate trustworthy sources has been completely inverted. The platform has been oriented specifically around engagement, rewarding those who drive traffic with cash payouts. It’s a different place than it used to be in myriad ways.
It’s also explicitly more open to extremist content. Musk has said that he bought Twitter to combat the “woke mind virus,” in his goofy phrasing. He presented himself as a champion of “free speech,” which, in practice, meant scaling back the site’s moderation efforts. This allowed more “anti-woke” content, which, by definition, means more right-wing content. He reinstated numerous accounts that had been removed for misinformation, abuse or extremist rhetoric, with the predictable effect that extremist content — including antisemitic content — soon surged.
Once he took control of Twitter, he also gave writers sympathetic to his priorities access to internal documentation, allowing them to construct a narrative about how the pre-Musk company had worked with government officials to tamp down on illegal content or misinformation about elections or the coronavirus vaccines. It was all very much overheated, but the line was drawn: Musk would performatively side with speech over government intervention.
Until, of course, the speech targeted Musk.
On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) announced that his office was opening an investigation into the left-leaning accountability outlet Media Matters.
“We are examining the issue closely to ensure that the public has not been deceived by the schemes of radical left-wing organizations,” Paxton said in a statement, “who would like nothing more than to limit freedom by reducing participation in the public square.”
This framing is very much over-the-top, in keeping with Paxton’s approach to issues linked to partisan culture-war fights. It’s useful to also note that Paxton’s view of Media Matters’ coverage of extremist voices did not prevent him from firing one of his deputies that the outlet identified as a source of rhetoric supporting the extremist QAnon movement and threats against Black and Muslim people.
So what did Media Matters do? It reported that advertisements for major corporations were being served alongside X posts centered on white supremacist and pro-Nazi content. It showed examples of the ads and the extremist content itself. In response, many large advertisers pulled their ads from the site.
This was not the first such report from Media Matters. In August, it produced a similar report, showing that ads for major brands were being featured in the feed of an account that often celebrated Hitler. And these aren’t even the only examples of the blending of extremism and X advertising. But this time, the report landed in the midst of controversy over Twitter’s elevation of antisemitic content after the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war and Musk’s endorsement of an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Media Matters, which regularly elevates criticism of right-wing media outlets, presented a useful foil to push back on the criticism at large.
So Musk announced that his company would sue Media Matters, even as it admitted that the reporting was accurate. The company’s argument, in essence, was that the extremist content wasn’t viewed often, so the majority of the ads served next to it were the ones seen by Media Matters. (Musk’s original tweet about the pending lawsuit also argued that most of the extremist content wouldn’t have been removed under X’s new free speech rules, raising the question of what would have happened with regards to ads had any of that content gone viral.)
Before the lawsuit was filed (which, eventually, it was), prominent right-wing voices offered their support for Musk. Andrew Tate, under indictment in Europe on rape and human trafficking charges, pledged to spend $1 million on X ads. Former Donald Trump aide Stephen Miller suggested that Media Matters’ reporting constituted fraud and that right-wing attorneys general investigate. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey (R) replied that his office would look into it. Then Paxton, who earlier this year avoided removal from his position after being impeached on corruption allegations, made his announcement.
Several issues are at play here, offering different lenses on how powerful interests seek to block accountability.
The lawsuit from Musk, however obvious in its intent, is not without risk for Media Matters. A decade ago, wrestler Hulk Hogan sued the website Gawker for invasion of privacy after it published an explicit video of Hogan. The years-long fight went to a jury trial, where Hogan prevailed, leading to Gawker’s demise.
But the lawsuit wasn’t simply Hogan seeking retribution against the site. It was funded by billionaire Peter Thiel, a former colleague of Musk’s, who had been frustrated by Gawker’s coverage of him. He’d bankrolled several cases against Gawker seeking to damage the site; the Hogan one simply paid off. Thiel went on to be a prominent backer of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, speaking at the Republican convention that year.
That’s the other useful lens here, of course: the deployment of state power — in this case, in Texas — against a media outlet. In Paxton’s statement, he centered the probe on Media Matters’ purported “deceit,” accepting X’s arguments to that end. But this, of course, is a real First Amendment fight: Should government actors be in charge of deciding what speech, including from media outlets, is deceptive? Should they be able to exact punishments even if the deceit is offered in bad faith?
There are media outlets that might be unenthusiastic about this standard being established (not to mention the various constitutional experts who might robustly disagree). Fox News recently rehired an editor who was responsible for the channel’s elevation of an irresponsible and quickly retracted report on the killing of Seth Rich in 2016. Would those celebrating Paxton’s suit against Media Matters embrace a similar suit filed by New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin (D) against Fox News?
Trump has spent eight months ferociously attacking the prosecutors who brought charges or filed suit against him in five venues. He has cast these investigations as politically motivated, despite the lack of evidence that, say, special counsel Jack Smith is simply motivated by some sense of partisanship. In response, Trump has begun to openly endorse deploying federal law enforcement resources against his enemies should he win the presidency in 2024.
Over the weekend, he also promised to “rout the Fake News Media” should he win. The Paxton probe offers a glimpse of what that could look like — particularly given that the idea of state-level charges was first elevated by Miller, one of Trump’s top advisers.
All of this suits Musk quite well. He has successfully pivoted his right-wing allies — and there’s no question the two sides are allied — to ignore his endorsement of antisemitic rhetoric in favor of going after their shared enemy: a left-wing accountability organization.
His purchase of Twitter allowed him to give a more robust platform to right-wing extremists to combat the left. His fight against Media Matters is providing a different platform for right-wing actors to do the same thing.