Ben Brody says his life was going fine. He had just finished college, stayed out of trouble, and was prepping for law school. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Elon Musk used his considerable social media clout to amplify an online mob’s misguided rants accusing the 22-year-old from California of being an undercover agent in a neo-Nazi group.
The claim, Brody told CNN, was as bizarre as it was baseless.
But the fact he bore a vague resemblance to a person 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 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 seeking to deny and downplay the actions of hate groups in the United States today.
The lies and taunts, which Musk engaged with 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’s fighting back.
Brody filed a defamation lawsuit 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 claims about him.
Brody’s lawyer—who is the same attorney who successfully sued conspiracy theorist Alex Jones over his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre —said he hopes the suit will force one of the world’s richest and most powerful men to reckon with his careless and harmful online behavior.
“This case strikes at 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 being far too reckless about the things they say about private people, people just trying to go about their lives who’ve done nothing to cause this attention.”
Asked for comment on the lawsuit, an attorney for Musk told CNN “we expect this case to be dismissed.” Musk’s lawyers have until Jan 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 being 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 no great 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, where the far-right protesters pushed and pulled at each other, quickly spread across social media.
Online conspiracy theorists soon jumped into the fray.
Rather than accept the fact that two far-right groups who 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 kind to make the neo-Nazis look bad.
That’s when they found Ben Brody.
‘You’re being accused of being a neo-Nazi…’
The day after the Pride event, Brody began getting text messages from his friends telling him to check out social media.
“You’re being accused of being a neo-Nazi fed,” he recalled some of his friends telling him.
Somehow, someone on social media had found a photo of Brody online and decided he looked like one of the people involved in the clash.
Anonymous people online, self-appointed internet detectives, began digging and found out Brody was Jewish and had been a political science major at the University of California, Riverside. On his college fraternity’s webpage, he had once stated he wanted to work for the government.
“I put that I wanted to work for the government. And that’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.
His being Jewish was relevant to them because conspiracy theories are often steeped in antisemitism – suggesting there’s a Jewish plan to control the world.
Brody’s social media inboxes filled up with messages, such as “Fed,” “Nazi,” and “We got you.” He and his mom were forced to leave their family home after their address was posted online, he said.
‘Looks like one is a college student (who wants to join the govt)’
Some of Brody’s friends began posting online, trying to correct the record and explain this was a case of mistaken identity. Brody himself posted a video to Instagram where he desperately tried to prove his innocence. He even went as far as getting time-stamped video surveillance footage showing him in a restaurant in Riverside, California, at the time of the brawl in Oregon, as proof he could not have been at the rally.
But to no avail. The conspiracy theory kept spreading across the internet, including on X. But it wasn’t just anonymous trolls fueling the lie. Musk, the platform’s owner, had joined in, amplifying 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 far-right groups. Musk asked on X on June 25, “Who were the unmasked individuals?”
Another X user linked to a tweet alleging Brody was one of the unmasked individuals. The tweet highlighted a line from Brody’s fraternity profile that noted he wanted to work for the government after graduation.
The tweet claimed the unmasked alleged member of the far-right group was Brody, pointing out he was a “political science student at a liberal school on a career path towards the feds.”
“Very odd,” Musk responded.
Another user shared the tweet alleging Brody’s involvement and commented, “Remember when they called us conspiracy theorists for saying the feds were planting fake Nazis at rallies?”
“Always remove their masks,” Musk replied.
On June 27, having engaged with conspiracy theories about the subject over a number of days, Musk alleged that the Oregon skirmish was a false flag. “Looks like one is a college student (who wants to join the govt) and another is maybe an Antifa member, but nonetheless a probable false flag situation,” he tweeted.
“I knew that this was snowballing, but once Elon Musk commented, I was like, ‘boom, that’s the final nail in the coffin,’” Brody recalled.
Musk has more followers than anyone else on X – approximately 150 million at the end of 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 worried his name would forever be associated with neo-Nazism, that he wouldn’t be able to get a job. Though he had finished college, he hadn’t yet graduated, and he said some of the accounts messaging him were threatening to contact his university. “My life is ruined,” he thought.
Attempting to clear his name, he gave an interview to Vice.com, which caught the attention of Mark Bankston.
The man who took down Alex Jones
Bankston is best known as the lawyer who successfully took on the 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 views as a necessary conversation about the vitriolic nature of online discourse.
The lawsuit filed last month in Travis County, Texas (the same county in which Bankston successfully sued Jones), alleges Musk’s claims about Brody are part of a “serial pattern of slander” by the billionaire.
Musk, the suit argues, is “perhaps the most influential of all influencers, and his endorsement of the accusation against Ben galvanized other social media influencers and users to continue their attacks and harassment, as well as post accusations against Ben that will remain online forever.”
Soon after he took over Twitter in 2022, Musk said the platform must “become by far the most accurate source of information about the world.”
But, on the contrary, the suit alleges, “Musk has been personally using the platform to spread false statements on a consistent basis while propping up and amplifying the most reprehensible elements of conspiracy-addled Twitter.”
The suit outlines how Musk has engaged with accounts that traffic in racism and antisemitism and lists instances in which he publicly shared or engaged with conspiracy theories – including last October when he shared false claims about the attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The suit alleges that in August after Musk was made aware through his lawyers about Brody’s case for defamation, Musk refused to delete his tweets.
Bankston and his client said the lawsuit is about a lot more than money.
“I just want to make things right,” Brody told CNN. “It’s not about vengeance. I’m not angry. It’s not resentment. I just want to make things right, to get an apology, so that this doesn’t happen again to anyone else.”