After a devastating advertiser exodus last week involving some of the world’s biggest media companies, X owner Elon Musk is suing progressive watchdog group Media Matters over its analysis highlighting anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi content on X — a report that appeared to play a significant role in the massive and highly damaging fire rebellion.
The lawsuit filed Monday accuses Media Matters of misrepresenting how likely ads are to appear next to extremist content on X, claiming the group’s testing methodology was not representative of how real users experience the site.
“Media Matters knowingly and maliciously fabricated side-by-side images depicting advertisers’ posts on X Corp.’s social media platform next to neo-Nazi and white-nationalist fringe content and then portrayed these fabricated images as if they were, what typical X users experience on the platform,” said the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. “Media Matters designed both these images and its resulting media strategy to drive advertisers off the platform and destroy X Corp.”
The lawsuit marks the latest example of Musk’s favored response to his critics and seeks to direct blame for the advertiser’s backlash against third-party groups after Musk publicly endorsed the anti-Semitic claim that Jewish communities push “hate against whites” the same week.
The lawsuit also names Media Matters and Eric Hananoki, its senior investigative reporter, as defendants. It seeks a court order forcing Media Matters to remove its analysis from its website and accuses Media Matters of interfering with X’s contracts with advertisers, of disrupting their financial relationships and of unlawfully disparaging X.
In a statement Monday night, Media Matters President Angelo Carusone pledged to defend the group against the suit.
“This is a frivolous lawsuit designed to bully X’s critics into silence,” Carusone said. “Media Matters stands by its reporting and looks forward to winning in court.”
On Monday night, X CEO Linda Yaccarino defended the social media.
“If you know me, you know I am committed to truth and justice,” Yaccarino submitted. “Here’s the truth. Not a single authentic user on X saw IBM’s, Comcast’s or Oracle’s ads next to the content of the Media Matters article.”
After the lawsuit was filed, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stepped in and announced that he would investigate Media Matters to determine whether its investigation of content on X could constitute “potential fraudulent activity” under Texas law. He also called the group a “radical left-wing organization” that “would like nothing more than to limit freedom by reducing participation in the public square.”
And the Missouri Attorney General wrote on X that his office was also investigating Media Matters, news like Musk replied: “Great!”
Musk had teased the lawsuit Saturday after major brands including Disney, Paramount and CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, halted their advertising on X. Musk threatened a “thermonuclear lawsuit” against Media Matters and “ALL those who collaborated in this fraudulent attack on our company,” including, he said in a follow-up post, “their board of directors, their donors , their network of dark money, all of them…”
In a preview of X’s argument, Musk appeared not to dispute the findings of Media Matters’ analysis, but instead targeted the group for creating a test account and allegedly updating the account until X’s advertising systems ran an ad for a major brand at the site of extremist content. The result generated by the test would almost never happen in the real world, Musk’s complaint claimed.
Legal experts on technology and the First Amendment widely characterized X’s complaint Monday as weak and opportunistically filed in a court that Musk believes is likely to side with him.
“It’s one of those lawsuits filed more for symbolism than substance — as reflected in how empty the allegations really are and where Musk chose to file it, highlighting the ultra-conservative Northern District of Texas despite its absence of any logical connection to the dispute,” said Steve Vladeck, University of Texas law professor and CNN legal analyst. “The choice of venue can best be described as an attempt to support a weak claim on the merits with a bench more likely to be sympathetic even to weak claims.”
“This sounds like a press release, not a lawsuit to me,” said Joan Donovan, professor of journalism and new media at Boston University. “X admits the ads ran next to hateful content, but claims it was ‘rare’. This is the same strategy used by advertisers that led YouTube to demonize political content in 2017.”
A legal expert said the lawsuit could backfire.
“This lawsuit is riddled with legal flaws, and it is highly ironic that a platform that presents itself as a beacon of free speech would file a bogus lawsuit like this that directly contradicts basic principles of the First Amendment and targets a critic’s free speech ,” First Det attorney Ted Boutrous told CNN. “And in some ways it’s a dream come true for the folks at Media Matters because it could allow them to use the process of discovery in lawsuits to compel X to reveal all sorts of embarrassing, damaging private information, which it would much rather keep secret.”
Ken White, a First Amendment lawyer and criminal defense attorney based in Los Angeles, said the decision to file in Texas may have been intended to circumvent laws passed by California, the District of Columbia and dozens of states barring frivolous lawsuits designed to stifle public criticism.
“X filed this in federal court in Texas to avoid application of an anti-SLAPP statute,” White said on X alternative BlueSky, using the acronym that refers to so-called “strategic public participation litigation.”
In the federal appeals court that oversees Texas, anti-SLAPP statutes do not apply, White added.
“X’s purpose is to harass and abuse and maximize the cost of litigation, and anti-SLAPP statutes interfere with that goal,” he wrote.
Monday’s case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman, a Donald Trump appointee who has previously been at the center of some of the nation’s biggest legal battles. Last November, Pittman blocked President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt, one of two such decisions to reach the Supreme Court.
Last August, Pittman ruled that a Texas law that prohibits people aged 18 to 20 from carrying handguns in public is unconstitutional and contrary to the Second Amendment and US history.
CNN’s Jon Passantino, Oliver Darcy and Dan Berman contributed to this report