As promised, Elon Musk’s X Corp has filed a new lawsuit against Media Matters, which accuses Media Matters, a non-profit misinformation research group, of fabricating evidence in order to suggest that X is displaying ads from big-name brands alongside harmful content, including posts from neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ accounts.
Media Matters has released several reports on this, many of which have included visual examples of ads from major brands displayed alongside harmful posts. These investigations have now led to a new boycott of X ads, with several major brands, including Disney, Apple, and more, announcing over the weekend that they’re putting a pause on their X campaigns in light of these findings.
In response, X has refuted the Media Matters report, with both owner Elon Musk and CEO Linda Yaccarino going on the offensive, accusing Media Matters of manipulating their findings through inorganic means, which have resulted in non-indicative results.
If you know me, you know I’m committed to truth and fairness. 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. Only 2 users saw Apple’s ad next to the content, at least one of which was Media…
— Linda Yaccarino (@lindayaX) November 20, 2023
As per X’s legal response:
“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.”
Which is not exactly what Media Matters has claimed in its reports, but it is the implication, that X users are potentially seeing ads from big-name brands alongside such posts.
X says that Media Matters has falsely triggered these ad impressions through inorganic means, which have corrupted its findings.
“Media Matters exclusively followed a small subset of users consisting entirely of accounts in one of two categories: those known to produce extreme, fringe content, and accounts owned by X’s big-name advertisers. The end result was a feed precision-designed by Media Matters for a single purpose: to produce side-by-side ad/content placements that it could screenshot in an effort to alienate advertisers. Media Matters then resorted to endlessly scrolling and refreshing its unrepresentative, hand-selected feed, generating between 13 and 15 times more advertisements per hour than viewed by the average X user, repeating this inauthentic activity until it finally received pages containing the result it wanted: controversial content next to X’s largest advertisers’ paid posts.”
I’m not entirely sure that X’s argument will hold up here, in that, in effect, it’s admitting that it is possible that ads could be shown next to this type of content, within certain parameters. Sure, X’s argument is that nobody’s actually going to use the platform in this way, which is why these results are invalid. But that’s an assumption that shouldn’t be needed, because X’s protective measures should stop such incidents from happening at all, ever, which, by X’s own admission, they have not.
Given this, I’m slightly surprised to see X push ahead with this, and file a lawsuit based on these grounds. Elon had promised that a “thermonuclear lawsuit” would be filed against Media Matters the moment the courts opened on Monday, which it had seemed that he’d re-thought and opted not to pursue. But evidently, his legal team was just gathering their brief, with the suit eventually registered later in the day.
At the same time, Texas Attorney-General Ken Paxton has also opened his own investigation into Media Matters over potential fraudulent activity relating to its X reports.
Media Matters has already issued a statement in response to Musk’s initial threats, saying that:
“[Elon] Musk is a bully who threatens meritless lawsuits in an attempt to silence reporting that even he confirmed is accurate. If he does sue us, we will win.”
Based on the available evidence, I would suggest that it is correct, however, the very process of defending such in court will be costly, which clearly benefits the world’s richest man over a non-profit.
But it does appear to be moving to the next stage, which will see Media Matters forced to defend its findings, on several fronts. It’ll be interesting to see what the ultimate outcome is from such, while Musk has also promised that more lawsuits are coming, as he seeks to expose Media Matters and its supporters.
The next big question for X then is will advertisers now hold off on X ad spending till an official finding is handed down?
If that’s the case, that could have a big impact on X’s bottom line, and by enacting legal process, X may have forced its ad partners into a stalemate, as the optics of resuming their campaigns while an official outcome is pending could be less than ideal.
And X really can’t afford to lose more ad revenue, after already seeing a 60% decline in U.S. ad income year-over-year, due to Elon’s controversial changes at the app.
It’s also worth noting that many brands actually halted their X ad spend due to Musk’s own tacit support of a common anti-Semitic theory, via a post in the app, which he has since deleted. Musk has offered no apologies for this, and has instead sought to re-focus attention on Media Matters, whom he’s now presenting as an enemy of free speech.
But really, it’s Musk’s own commentary that’s causing just as much, if not more headaches for the company, while its ad systems, based on various third-party reports, from Media Matters and others, are seemingly failing to provide adequate brand safety.
The way forward, then, would be to acknowledge the potential of such, and to work with these groups to fix flaws in its systems.
But X has chosen a different path, which could drag out its losses, and expand the impacts.