Ben Brody says his life was going fine. He had just finished college, stayed out of trouble and was preparing for law school. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Elon Musk used his considerable social media influence to amplify the misguided rants of an online mob accusing the 22-year-old from California of being an undercover agent of a neo-Nazi group.
The claim, Brody told CNN, was as bizarre as it was baseless.
But the fact that he bore a vague resemblance to someone allegedly in the group, that he was Jewish, and that he once stated in a college fraternity profile posted online that he aspired to one day work for the government, was more than enough information. for Internet trolls to falsely conclude that Brody was an undercover government agent (a “Fed”) planted inside the neo-Nazi group to make them look bad.
For Brody, the fallout was immediate. Overnight, he became a central character in a story spun by people who seek to deny and trivialize the actions of hate groups in the United States today.
The lies and mockery that Musk engaged in on social media turned his life upside down, Brody said. At one point, he said, he and his mother had to flee their home for fear of being attacked.
Now he is fighting back.
Brody filed a defamation suit last month against Musk, the owner of X, formerly known as Twitter. The suit seeks damages in excess of $1 million. Brody says he wants the billionaire to apologize and retract the false allegations about him.
Brody’s lawyer – who is the same lawyer who successfully sued conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre – said he hopes the case will force one of the world’s richest and most powerful men to account with his careless and harmful online behavior.
“This case goes to the heart of something that I think is going really wrong in this country,” attorney Mark Bankston said in an interview with CNN. “How powerful people, very influential people, are far too reckless about the things they say about private people, people who are just trying to get on with their lives, who have done nothing to bring this attention.”
When asked for comment on the lawsuit, a lawyer for Musk told CNN that “we expect this case to be dismissed.” Musk’s lawyers have until January 5, 2024 to file their response in court.
On the night of Saturday, June 24, 2023, Ben Brody was in Riverside, California.
About 1,000 miles away, a gay pride event was held near Portland, Oregon. In recent years, the city has become a flashpoint for often violent clashes over the country’s ongoing culture wars.
It was little surprise, then, that the event became a target for rival far-right groups and neo-Nazis, who began fighting among themselves while protesting. Video of the skirmish, in which the far-right protesters pushed and pulled each other, quickly spread on social media.
Online conspiracy theorists quickly jumped into the fray.
Rather than accept the fact that two far-right groups that have previously embraced violence were responsible for the clash, online trolls insisted it must be a so-called “false flag” event – a set-up of some sort to make neo-Nazis look bad.
That’s when they found Ben Brody.
The day after the Pride event, Brody started getting text messages from his friends telling him to check out social media.
“You’re being accused of being neo-Nazi fed,” he recalled some of his friends telling him.
Somehow, someone on social media had found a picture of Brody online and decided he looked like one of those involved in the crash.
Anonymous people online, self-styled internet detectives, started digging and found that Brody was Jewish and had been a political science student at the University of California, Riverside. On his college fraternity’s website, he had once declared that he wanted to work for the government.
“I said I wanted to work for the government. And it’s just because I didn’t know specifically what part of the government I wanted to work for. You know, I was like, I could be a lawyer,” Brody recalled in an interview with CNN.
Being Jewish was relevant to them because conspiracy theories are often steeped in anti-Semitism – suggesting there is a Jewish plan to control the world.
Brody’s social media inbox filled up with messages such as “Fat,” “Nazi” and “We got you.” He and his mother were forced to leave their family home after their address was posted online, he said.
Some of Brody’s friends started posting online, trying to set the record straight and explain that this was a case of mistaken identity. Brody himself posted a video on Instagram in which he desperately tried to prove his innocence. He even went so far as to obtain time-stamped video surveillance footage showing him in a restaurant in Riverside, Calif., at the time of the fight in Oregon, as proof that he could not have been at the rally.
But to no avail. The conspiracy theory continued to spread across the internet, including on X. But it wasn’t just anonymous trolls who fueled the lie. Musk, the platform’s owner, had gone along and reinforced the lie to his millions of followers.
Video from the Oregon event showed the masks of at least one protester being removed during the fight between the opposing right-wing groups. Musk asked the X on June 25, “Who were the unmasked individuals?”
Another X user linked to a tweet that claimed Brody was one of the unmasked people. The tweet highlighted a line from Brody’s fraternity profile that noted he wanted to work for the government after graduation.
The tweet claimed that the unmasked alleged member of the far-right group was Brody, pointing out that he was a “political science student at a liberal school on an anti-FB career path.”
“Very strange,” Musk replied.
Another user shared the tweet alleging Brody’s involvement, commenting: “Remember when they called us conspiracy theorists for saying the feds planted fake Nazis at rallies?”
“Always remove their masks,” Musk replied.
On June 27, after dealing with conspiracy theories on the subject over a number of days, Musk claimed that the Oregon encounter was a false flag. “Looks like one is a college student (who wants to join the government) and another might be an Antifa member, but a likely false flag situation nonetheless,” he tweeted.
“I knew this was going to snowball, but when Elon Musk commented, I thought, ‘boom, that’s the last nail in the coffin,'” Brody recalled.
Musk has more followers than anyone else on X — about 150 million in late June, around the time he tweeted about the fight in Oregon, according to records from the Internet Archive. That tweet has been viewed more than 1.2 million times, according to X’s own data.
Brody was worried that his name would forever be associated with neo-Nazism, that he would not be able to get a job. Although he had finished college, he had not yet graduated, and he said some of the accounts that sent him messages threatened to contact his university. “My life is ruined,” he thought.
In an attempt to clear his name, he gave an interview to Vice.com, which caught the attention of Mark Bankston.
Bankston is best known as the attorney who successfully took on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in court on behalf of parents who lost their children in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting.
Bankston said Brody’s case is not only an opportunity to help clear the young man’s name, but could also force what he sees as a necessary conversation about the cruel nature of online discourse.
The lawsuit, filed last month in Travis County, Texas (the same county where Bankston successfully sued Jones), alleges that Musk’s allegations about Brody are part of a “serial pattern of defamation” by the billionaire.
Musk, the suit claims, is “perhaps the most influential of all the influencers, and his support of the accusation against Ben encouraged other influencers and social media users to continue their attacks and harassment, as well as posting accusations against Ben, which will remain online forever . .”
Shortly after taking over Twitter in 2022, Musk said the platform will “become by far the most accurate source of information about the world.”
But to the contrary, the suit claims, “Musk has personally used the platform to spread false statements on a consistent basis while supporting and amplifying the most reprehensible elements of conspiracy-addled Twitter.”
The suit outlines how Musk has engaged in narratives dealing with racism and anti-Semitism, and lists instances where he publicly shared or engaged in conspiracy theories — including last October when he shared false claims about the attack on Paul Pelosi, husband to then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The suit alleges that in August, after Musk was made aware of Brody’s defamation suit through his lawyers, Musk refused to delete his tweets.
Bankston and his client said the lawsuit is about much more than money.
“I just want to do things right,” Brody told CNN. “It’s not about revenge. I’m not mad. It’s not anger. I just want to make things right, to have an apology so this doesn’t happen again to anybody else.”