In the suit against MMFA, X claims that “99% of X’s measured ad placement has appeared adjacent to content scoring above the Global Alliance for Responsible Media’s brand safety floor”—an advertising industry standard to prevent monetization around harmful content—and that MMFA had “manipulated” the platform’s algorithm to return results that, the suit claims, are otherwise rare.
In response, X CEO Linda Yaccarino claimed that “not a single authentic user on X saw IBM’s, Comcast’s, or Oracle’s ads next to the content in Media Matters’ article.” Yaccarino added that “only 2 users saw Apple’s ad next to the content, at least one of which was Media Matters.”
“Holy shit. If you search HeilHitler, you get a ton of ads. I literally just got the German Government’s ‘come live in Germany’ ad on the search,” user @ErinInTheMorn posted. “Media Matters was not lying.” WIRED was not able to replicate these results, and it appears as though ads are no longer running against this and similar terms.
Taking aim at nonprofits, Ahmed says, might backfire on Musk. “I think it’s really important that people understand that this is a man that you’re doing business with, and that if you advertise on that platform, you’re essentially endorsing the behavior.”
Since Musk took the helm at X, the company has seen a steep decline in advertising revenue, which comprised about 90 percent of its revenue at the time of purchase.
One of Musk’s first moves as owner was to lay off nearly everyone at the company working on trust and safety—the roles that ensure that hate speech, disinformation, nudity, violence, and other inappropriate content are kept off the platform. And as many experts feared, hate speech did increase after Musk took over. In response, some advertisers have pulled their spend on X amid fears the platform is high-risk.
In an attempt to right the ship, X brought on now-CEO Linda Yaccarino, an experienced advertising executive from NBCUniversal. But Musk has remained the focal point of X, and though the company said in October that it was seeing some of its marquee advertisers return, a different study from MMFA found that these advertisers were spending 90 percent less than they had before Musk took over the company.
Shannon Jankowski, interim director for US free expression at the nonprofit PEN America, claims that X’s choice to file its suit in Texas is “arbitrarily choosing a venue that’s known to be conservative, that’s likely to favor Elon Musk and X.” Texas also doesn’t have any laws on the books that prevent “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPP lawsuits, she adds, meaning that it will be more difficult for MMFA to get the case dismissed or recover any legal fees from X.
“It can bankrupt those organizations to try to get rid of these lawsuits,” Jankowski says.
But whether or not X’s lawsuit is successful, or the Texas Attorney General’s investigation returns anything, Jankowski worries it will hamper future accountability work. “If he can just file a frivolous lawsuit in a conservative venue, and then potentially trigger government-level investigations, it’s just really going to deter organizations from wanting to dive into this work.”
William Turton contributed reporting.