Elon Musk’s Latest Target Hits Back
Category: History & SociologyVia: hallux • 6 months ago • 2 comments
By: Yair Rosenberg - The Atlantic
Over the past few days, hundreds of thousands of posts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, have lambasted a Jewish organization that many people are only vaguely aware of: the Anti-Defamation League. The campaign, started by overt white nationalists and later boosted by Elon Musk himself, accuses the Jewish civil-rights group of seeking to censor the site’s users, intimidate its advertisers, and generally abrogate American freedoms in service of a sinister liberal agenda.
I’m pretty familiar with the ADL. Like many reporters and subject-matter experts on anti-Semitism, I’ve spoken at some of the organization’s events. I haven’t always agreed with its approach, whether on social-media moderation or Israel. But though the ADL doesn’t get everything right, it has a better batting average than most organizations in this difficult space. In any case, as I wrote earlier this week, none of what is happening to the group today has much to do with the specific policies it advocates, whatever their merits. Rather, the ADL is being scapegoated on Twitter for the platform’s own failings, and attacked as a stand-in for supposed Jewish power.
In an effort to disentangle criticism from conspiracy, I spoke last night with the ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, about his organization’s approach to free speech, how he attempts to represent a Jewish consensus in such a polarized time, and whether the ADL is secretly trying to strangle Twitter.
Yair Rosenberg: This all started after you had a conversation with Twitter’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, about the company’s approach to moderating hate speech. You subsequently tweeted about the exchange, calling it “frank” and “productive.” To most people, this might seem perfectly banal—the sort of discussion that regularly happens between Twitter and outside interest groups—but it enraged some openly white-nationalist accounts on the platform, and led them to launch the hashtag , claiming that the ADL wants to control what people can say on the site and, failing that, shut the whole place down. So what I want to know is: What actually happened on that call?
Jonathan Greenblatt: It was a half-hour Zoom attended by myself, Linda, and one of her staffers. It was an introductory conversation. We talked a little bit about our backgrounds and mutual friends. And we talked about a vision for Twitter. I shared that we had worked with the company since long before the ownership change last fall and that my hope was that we’d continue to work with the company in order to make the platform better. Our focus at ADL is fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hate, and so in the dialogue I’ve had with Elon, that’s our goal. That’s what we’re trying to do. I don’t want to share all the contents of our conversation, but I left the call feeling very positive, so much so that when the staff person reached out and asked me to tweet about the meeting—not something I would normally do—I was willing to do so. And Linda then replied to my tweet in a positive manner as well. That’s where we left it—which was one reason why I was so surprised when things took a much different turn in the days that followed.
Rosenberg: Much of the anger directed at the ADL on Twitter this week has been explicitly anti-Semitic in nature. But some of the posts reference actual facts. It’s true that the ADL has lobbied social-media platforms to police what it sees as hate speech, working alongside many other, non-Jewish organizations that no one on far-right Twitter cares about because those groups are not Jewish. This effort long predates Musk’s tenure, and contrary to the claims of your critics, it has often been a fruitless pursuit. I’m thinking of your calls to Twitter’s previous management to sanction the account of the Supreme Leader of Iran, who has repeatedly denied the Holocaust and attempted to incite genocide on the platform.
Are you pressuring advertisers to boycott Twitter if it doesn’t take your advice?
Rosenberg: So what is the nature of the ADL’s advocacy? The First Amendment doesn’t apply to private platforms, but we do have a free-speech culture in America, where we tend to err on the side of allowing people to say what they want in the public square. Where do you and the ADL draw the line between what is offensive and what is genuinely unacceptable?
Greenblatt: Let me break it down. We are focused on the broad intersection of technology and society. Why? Because increasingly, the line between the online and the offline has blurred. So many of us lead lives that are as digital as they are analog, whether it’s online gaming, or e-commerce platforms, or messaging apps, or social-media services. And the latter are a particular concern because social media is a super-spreader of anti-Semitism and hate—an issue on Twitter which long precedes Elon Musk. As you said, we were unable to affect the kind of change that we wanted under previous management.
Now, to the point about engaging with companies: We’ve worked with everyone from Amazon to Zoom. The goal is not to censor; it’s to support these companies, to share with them what we see, and to help them do a better job. The fact of the matter is that ADL is a civil-rights organization that has been ferociously defending the First Amendment for over 100 years. You’re correct to identify that businesses are not free-speech zones. Nonetheless, we believe very strongly that hate speech is the price of free speech. It is! To live in a democracy and an open society, you have to be willing to listen to things that you don’t like, things that you detest. Where that crosses a line is when people are inciting violence against others, spreading the kind of toxicity that can literally cause people harm.
Rosenberg: How can you tell which is which?
Greenblatt: I acknowledge that sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between what’s in and what’s out. But to be clear, this is not a new concern. Twitter/X is a media company that draws its revenue through advertising and subscriptions. These are not new forms of business. These are as old as the Gutenberg press. And that’s really important to point out, because for as long as we’ve had commercial media, they have abided by certain standards and practices, acknowledging the fact that they can publish what they want, but also that there are consequences for what voices they choose to privilege. Now, we can argue about what’s the line. But again, media companies have been making these calls since the advent of these mass-media tools.
Likewise, Twitter has to make decisions about all this. Does it want to keep this or that material up? Does it think such content contributes to the public conversation? They make those calls. And then guess what? Advertisers and subscribers will make informed decisions based on what they see. And that’s all that’s happening right now. ADL has not called Elon Musk an anti-Semite. ADL has not called Twitter an anti-Semitic platform. ADL is not actively pressuring companies to not participate on Twitter. In fact, up until last week, ADL was advertising on Twitter. So the notion that we were trying to “kill the company,” that’s a fiction. The reason I met with Linda, the reason I’ve been engaged with Elon, the reason we continue to try to work with them, is because we want it to be better. Because a better, healthier, safer Twitter is a better outcome for the Jewish people, its users, and, I think, for the world.
I feel compelled to lay all this out because if you look at this hashtag , there’s a lot of stuff among those tweets that I wouldn’t let my children see, because it’s so rancid. Now, if Twitter wants to keep that up there, that’s fine. That’s their prerogative. If they want to amplify it, again, their prerogative. But they shouldn’t be surprised when advertisers and subscribers and users more generally flee from that. Because it’s offensive, it’s ugly, and I think it’s wrong.
Rosenberg: I’m struck by the two very different versions of the ADL in this conversation. On the one hand, there’s the version of the ADL that preoccupies hard-right Twitter, which casts the group as this extraordinarily powerful yet secretive organization that manipulates what people see on social media through public and private pressure. And then there is the actual ADL in the real world, which I know from my reporting spends most of its time doing completely different things. Can you give a bird’s-eye view of what the ADL does on a daily basis?
Greenblatt: The ADL is the oldest anti-hate organization in America. We’re focused on three things. No. 1: protecting our community. We do that by tracking anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents; by monitoring extremists and trying to understand what they’re doing, through research and analysis; and by working with law enforcement. ADL is the largest trainer of law enforcement in the country on issues of hate and extremism. And we track immediate threats, like the swatting incidents that have happened in synagogues in recent weeks, or the neo-Nazis who marched in Florida over the weekend.
Secondly, we work to improve the social climate through advocacy. We lobby in Congress and state legislatures on issues of extremism and hate. We also work with the executive branch, where we’re very involved in helping the administration think about the National Strategy to Counter Anti-Semitism . We are also engaged in the judicial branch. We file amicus briefs on cases where we see a connection to the issues we care about. We also litigate in the courts. Right now, we are suing the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. We’ve done that kind of work for years, and have helped bankrupt groups like the White Aryan Resistance.
Rosenberg: I can’t imagine why so many white nationalists on Twitter would want to ban you.
Greenblatt: This is part of why they hate us so much. Because we track them. Because we sue them. And because we are working very hard to beat back their bigotry. And by the way, sometimes that advocacy requires us to speak out not just in the judicial courts, but in the court of public opinion, which we do regularly, engaging not just with government or the press, but—as we’ve discussed—with companies and the private sector and other aspects of civil society.
Thirdly, we work to change the culture through education and representation. ADL is one of the largest providers in America of anti-bias, anti-hate, anti-bullying content in schools—material about standing up to anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism, etc. Last year, our content reached some 4.5 million schoolchildren. The truth is, to create long-term change, you can’t just arrest people or litigate. You have to change hearts and minds. So when ADL calls out the way Jews are represented in the media and works to change the way Jews and sometimes other minorities are perceived, that’s all about the long-term process of culture change.
To execute this work, we have a network of 25 field offices. And the main thing that they do is respond to anti-Semitic incidents. We’re the 911 for our community. When there’s an act of anti-Semitic vandalism, or an anti-Jewish assault, or a kid is harassed in school, or an employee is discriminated against at work, or an elderly Orthodox person gets attacked on the street, we show up and we’re there. Last year, we received reports of over 12,000 anti-Semitic incidents, and we investigated every one of them. We were able to ascertain that 3,697 were indeed anti-Semitic acts. This is what we’re doing every single day.
Rosenberg: I want to ask about some of the challenges of this work. You know and I know that anti-Semitism constructs itself as a conspiracy theory that alleges Jewish control of society and politics. This belief is a big part of the campaign. And it really complicates your job, because it often puts Jews in an impossible situation when confronting prejudice. If they say nothing about what they experience, the bigotry continues. But if the Jews protest their mistreatment, and the culprits suffer any consequences—for instance, advertisers say, “We don’t want to be on this platform right now”—the bigots just cast their punishment as confirmation of the powerful Jewish conspiracy. Heads, the anti-Semites win; tails, the Jews lose. As a prominent Jewish organization, how do you navigate this catch-22? Do you ever worry that sometimes your involvement in something will inadvertently affirm the anti-Semitic worldview? Is there even a way to avoid this trap, or does it just come with top-down activism?
Greenblatt: This is one of the unique dimensions of anti-Semitism as a phenomenon. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t . Now, what I will say is that while that may be true with the anti-Semites themselves, I actually deeply believe in the goodness of most people. And I think when you call attention to bigotry, the vast majority of people see it for what it is, and they understand it when it is explained, which helps us to collectively defeat the prejudice. Unfortunately, there is an extreme that will continue to see evil in the Jews, whether it’s the individual embodiment of the Jewish people, like George Soros or Sheldon Adelson, or an organizational embodiment of the Jewish people, like ADL, or the national embodiment of the Jewish people in Israel. The hardened anti-Semites see only evil in all of these different manifestations of our community. And yeah, I think that’s a big problem.
Rosenberg: We’ve talked so far about the ADL’s illegitimate critics—bigots upset at being exposed for their bigotry, and people who wrap themselves in the First Amendment while opposing freedom of religion for Jewish people and groups, in violation of the First Amendment. But the ADL also has plenty of more considered critics. On the right, you have conservative Jews who feel that the ADL has strayed too far into partisan progressive politics by getting involved in fights like the Brett Kavanaugh nomination , for example. And on the left, you have Jews who’ve argued that the ADL conflates criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Semitism. Jews are a famously fractious people, and it’s hard to get them to agree about anything, and that includes the ADL. How do you go about attempting to represent a Jewish consensus when there are often conflicting stakeholders? What does it mean to be a Jewish organization in our hyperpolarized climate?
Greenblatt: Well, it’s certainly difficult. I think we try to be principled, not political. When ADL was founded in 1913, the mission statement that the founders wrote was extraordinary in its ambition. The notion that the organization would work to stop the defamation of Jewish people and ensure justice and fair treatment for all—it got them a lot of criticism. I know it did, because I’ve read our oral histories from the 1950s and 1960s. When we stood with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when we marched in Selma, when we changed our policy on demonstrations in order to participate in the original March on Washington, we got a lot of flak internally. We got a lot of flak in 1953 when we filed an amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Education , and again some of our considered critics said that this was not an ADL issue—that desegregating America’s schools was not a Jewish issue. But ADL’s leaders believed that it was, and they stood up, took the risk, and I think ended up on the right side of history. But there have also been times when ADL has taken other positions, like when, under previous management, ADL opposed the Park51 mosque near Ground Zero. And I think we got that wrong.
I’m giving you those two examples because I think if you look back at the history, sometimes we’ve gotten it right; sometimes we’ve gotten it wrong. If you look at the eight years I’ve been at ADL, there are things I’ve gotten right, and there are things I’ve gotten wrong. That said, we do have what I’ll call determined detractors, or congenital critics, who see nothing good in anything that we do. And I think in an era when so much of our public conversation is mediated on social media, you hear a lot of those people. Some of them are those who say that I have some sort of political agenda. I don’t. I have one agenda, which is protecting the Jewish community. And so, yeah, I don’t always get it right. But even the mistakes that I make come from that place.