After a devastating advertiser exodus last week involving some of the world’s largest media companies, X owner Elon Musk is suing the progressive watchdog group Media Matters over its analysis highlighting antisemitic and pro-Nazi content on X — a report that appeared to play a significant role in the massive and highly damaging brand revolt.
The lawsuit filed Monday accuses Media Matters of distorting how likely it is for ads to appear beside extremist content on X, alleging that the group’s testing methodology was not representative of how real users experience the site.
“Media Matters knowingly and maliciously manufactured side-by-side images depicting advertisers’ posts on X Corp.’s social media platform beside Neo-Nazi and white-nationalist fringe content and then portrayed these manufactured images as if they were what typical X users experience on the platform,” the complaint filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas said. “Media Matters designed both these images and its resulting media strategy to drive advertisers from 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 backlash onto third-party groups after Musk, in the same week, publicly endorsed the antisemitic claim that Jewish communities push “hatred against Whites.”
The lawsuit simultaneously names Media Matters and Eric Hananoki, its senior investigative reporter, as defendants. It calls for a judicial 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 economic relationships and of unlawfully disparaging X.
In a statement Monday evening, Media Matters President Angelo Carusone vowed to defend the group against the suit.
“This is a frivolous lawsuit meant to bully X’s critics into silence,” Carusone said. “Media Matters stands behind its reporting and looks forward to winning in court.”
On Monday evening, X CEO Linda Yaccarino chimed in defending the social media site.
“If you know me, you know I’m committed to truth and fairness,” Yaccarino posted. “Here’s the truth. Not a single authentic user on X saw IBM’s, Comcast’s, or Oracle’s ads next to the content in Media Matters’ article.”
Following the lawsuit’s filing, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton piled on, announcing he would be investigating Media Matters to determine whether its study of content on X might 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.”
Musk had teased the litigation on Saturday after major brands including Disney, Paramount and CNN’s parent, Warner Bros. Discovery, halted their advertising on X. Musk threatened a “thermonuclear lawsuit” against Media Matters and “ALL those who colluded in this fraudulent attack on our company,” including, he said in a follow-up post, “their board, their donors, their network of dark money, all of them…”
In previewing X’s argument, Musk appeared not to dispute the results of Media Matters’ analysis, instead targeting the group for having created a test account and allegedly refreshing the account until X’s advertising systems ran an ad for a major brand beside extremist content. The result generated by the test would almost never happen in the real world, Musk’s complaint alleged.
Legal experts on technology and the First Amendment widely characterized X’s complaint on Monday as weak and opportunistically filed in a court that Musk likely believes will take his side.
“It’s one of those lawsuits that’s filed more for symbolism than for substance—as reflected in just how empty the allegations really are, and in where Musk chose to file, singling out the ultra-conservative Northern District of Texas despite its absence of any logical connection to the dispute,” said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas and a CNN legal analyst. “The choice of venue can best be described as trying to shore up a weak claim on the merits with a bench more likely to be sympathetic even to weak claims.”
“This reads like a press release, not a court filing to me,” said Joan Donovan, a professor of journalism and emerging media studies at Boston University. “X does admit the ads were shown next to hateful content, but argues it was ‘rare.’ This is the same strategy employed by advertisers that got YouTube to demonetize political content in 2017.”
One legal expert said the lawsuit could backfire.
“This lawsuit is riddled with legal flaws, and it is highly ironic that a platform that touts itself as a beacon of free speech would file a bogus case like this that flatly contradicts basic First Amendment principles and targets free speech by a critic,” First Amendment attorney Ted Boutrous told CNN. “And in some ways it’s a dream come true for the people at Media Matters because it could allow them to use the litigation discovery process to force X to divulge all sorts of embarrassing, damaging private information that 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 meant to stifle public criticism.
“X filed this in federal court in Texas to avoid application of an anti-SLAPP statute,” White said on the X alternative BlueSky, using the acronym that refers to so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”
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 aim,” he wrote.
Monday’s case has been assigned to 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 bans people ages 18 to 20 from carrying handguns in public is unconstitutional and inconsistent with the Second Amendment and US history.
CNN’s Jon Passantino, Oliver Darcy and Dan Berman contributed to this report