Once again, Elon Musk, the owner of the platform X, is facing a defamation lawsuit. And once again one has to ask: What is this man doing running one of the most influential social media platforms in the world?
One day in June, Ben Brody, who had just graduated from college, started receiving odd texts from his friends. They said there was a rumor circulating online that he was an undercover federal agent who was trying to provoke fights between brawling neo-Nazi groups in Oregon. Sitting at home in California, the confused Brody initially thought it was all a prank.?
It wasn’t. Unbeknownst to Brody, online sleuths had been searching for the identity of an unmasked participant in a skirmish that had recently broken out between two far-right groups near a Pride Night near Portland. Some of the self-appointed investigators had mistakenly identified Brody as the unmasked man in a video, and after delving into Brody’s publicly biographical information — indicating that he was a college student who said he was interested in working in government — they surmised that he was an undercover “fed” and agent provocateur.?
It’s bad enough to be the subject of an online mob’s false conspiracy theory. It’s worse when one of the most influential men in the world seems to cosign that theory. On X, Musk responded encouragingly to multiple posts making speculative or false claims about Brody. Even after Brody had posted a video with evidence that he had been in California when the fight occurred, Musk suggested he believed Brody was in Oregon and likely part of some kind of operation. “Looks like one is a college student (who wants to join the govt) and another is maybe an Antifa member,” he wrote. “But nonetheless a probable false flag situation.” Musk also tagged “Community Notes,” a feature on X that allows users to append notes to posts that are intended to add context to or fact-check widely circulated posts.?
Musk, who is followed by over 150 million users, turbocharged the online mob. Brody said was doxxed and harassed, and, at one point, he left his home with his mother out of concern for their safety. Brody is suing Musk for making “reckless” claims about him that damaged his reputation and endangered him. “Musk’s personal endorsement of the false accusation against Ben Brody reverberated across the internet, transforming the accusation from anonymous rumor to gospel truth for many individuals, and causing others to use Musk’s endorsement to justify their desire to harass Ben Brody and his family,” Brody’s lawsuit says. (Musk’s attorney told CNN that “we expect this case to be dismissed.”)
Whether or not Musk violated the law, it is clear he acted irresponsibly. Musk knows that he is, by many measures, one of the most influential people in the world and that his commentary encourages tribal reactions among his followers. Rather than ignore or express skepticism toward a group of amateur detectives online who were whipping up an online mob around a 22-year-old, Musk instead lent it his tremendous power and did nothing to counteract the wave of hatred — and awkward Google search results — that immediately crashed on Brody.??
Musk’s behavior wasn't only personally irresponsible; it was yet another sign that he is precisely the wrong kind of person to helm a social media company. Musk has already shown on many occasions that he isn’t the champion of free speech that he claimed to be before purchasing the company. But on top of that, he also shows disregard for the idea of fostering meaningful speech. One way to encourage meaningful speech is to take reasonable measures to mitigate the spread of misinformation. Instead, Musk has systematically dismantled any such safeguards during his tenure at X. He scrapped the verified badges that allowed users to confirm accounts’ identities; disbanded the company' trust and safety teams; stripped (or selectively enforced) badges meant to show whether accounts were government-affiliated, thus hurting users’ ability to sniff out propaganda; and eagerly reactivated previously banned right-wing troll accounts that thrive on spreading false rumors (while seemingly suppressing left-leaning accounts). Musk's handling of the Brody incident also modeled a kind of behavior that encourages the spread of life-altering misinformation about private citizens.?
Musk is creating an online space most hospitable to bullies and merchants of misinformation. That’s not only civically deplorable, but it’s also bad for business. X’s value has already dropped precipitously since he bought it last year; making it a place where even its owner encourages harassment of random users isn’t going to make fleeing advertisers any more likely to consider coming back.
Regardless of whether Brody succeeds against Musk — who has won defamation lawsuits before — Musk should re-evaluate the kind of reckless, society-corroding behavior he’s encouraging on his platform. I’m not optimistic that’s going to happen.