Elon Musk’s Newest Controversy: A Powerful Counterattack

Over the past few days, numerous posts circulating on X, previously known as Twitter, have criticized the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish organization that many are vaguely familiar with. The #BanTheADL campaign, initiated by overt white nationalists and later supported by Elon Musk, accuses the ADL of attempting to censor users, intimidate advertisers, and undermine American freedoms for a hidden liberal agenda.

As someone well-versed in the ADL, I have spoken at their events as a reporter and expert in anti-Semitism. While I may not always agree with their approach to social media moderation or Israel, the ADL has a better track record than most organizations in this challenging domain. Nonetheless, the current backlash against the ADL on Twitter has little to do with their specific policies, but rather, they are being scapegoated and attacked as a representation of supposed Jewish power.

To clarify the criticism from conspiracy, I recently interviewed Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, regarding their stance on free speech, their efforts to represent Jewish consensus in a polarized time, and allegations of secretly strangling Twitter. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

Yair Rosenberg: The controversy began after you had a conversation with Twitter’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, about the company’s approach to moderating hate speech. You tweeted about the exchange, describing it as “frank” and “productive.” While this may seem unremarkable to most, it enraged openly white nationalist accounts on Twitter, leading to the hashtag #BanTheADL. Can you shed light on what transpired during that call?

Jonathan Greenblatt: The conversation was a half-hour Zoom meeting attended by Linda, one of her staffers, and myself. It served as an introductory conversation where we discussed our backgrounds, mutual acquaintances, and a vision for Twitter. I shared that the ADL has been working with the company even before the ownership change and expressed my hope of continuing to improve the platform. At ADL, our focus is combating anti-Semitism and hate in general. My dialogue with Elon Musk also centered around these goals. Although I can’t disclose all the details of our conversation, I left the call feeling positive, which is why I agreed to tweet about it when asked.

Rosenberg: Much of the anger directed at the ADL on Twitter has been explicitly anti-Semitic. However, some posts reference true information. It is accurate that the ADL has advocated for social media platforms to combat hate speech, collaborating with various non-Jewish organizations that do not receive the same attention from far-right Twitter. This effort long predates Musk’s involvement and has often proved challenging. For instance, your calls for Twitter’s previous management to sanction the account of Iran’s Supreme Leader, who denies the Holocaust and promotes genocide, were largely ineffective. Are you pressuring advertisers to boycott Twitter based on your recommendations?

Greenblatt: No, we are not pressuring advertisers to boycott Twitter.

Rosenberg: Then what is the nature of the ADL’s advocacy? While the First Amendment does not apply to private platforms, America has a free-speech culture that leans toward allowing individuals to express themselves. How does the ADL differentiate between offensive speech and genuinely unacceptable content?

Greenblatt: Let me explain. Our focus lies in the intersection between technology and society. The line between the online and offline realms has become blurred as many of us lead digitally-oriented lives, engaging in online gaming, e-commerce, messaging apps, and social media services. Social media, in particular, is notorious for spreading anti-Semitism and hate, a problem that predates Elon Musk’s involvement. We have often failed to bring about the desired change under previous management.

Regarding our engagement with companies, from Amazon to Zoom, our intention is not censorship. We aim to support these organizations, share our insights, and help them improve. The ADL has always fiercely defended the First Amendment as a civil rights organization for over 100 years. While businesses are not spaces for free speech, we firmly believe that hate speech is an inherent aspect of free speech. To live in a democracy and open society, we must be willing to tolerate views we dislike or detest. However, there is a line when such views incite violence or spread toxicity that can harm individuals.

Rosenberg: How do you distinguish between the two?

Greenblatt: I acknowledge the difficulty in differentiating between what is acceptable and what crosses the line. However, this concern is not new. Twitter, just like any media company that relies on advertising and subscriptions for revenue, operates within established standards and practices. These standards have existed since the advent of mass media tools, such as the Gutenberg press. Twitter must make content decisions, determining what should remain and contribute to public discourse. Consequently, advertisers, subscribers, and users make informed decisions based on the content they encounter. The ADL has not labeled Elon Musk or Twitter as anti-Semitic. We are not actively pressuring companies to disengage from Twitter. In fact, up until last week, the ADL was advertising on the platform. Claims that we seek to “kill the company” are entirely fictional. I had discussions with Linda and Elon because we aspire to enhance the platform and create a safer, healthier, and better Twitter for the Jewish community, its users, and the world.

I feel compelled to clarify these points because the hashtag #BanTheADL contains numerous tweets with offensive and repulsive content that I would not expose my children to. While it is within Twitter’s right to maintain or amplify such content, they should not be surprised if advertisers, subscribers, and users distance themselves. The offensive nature of these posts is unjustifiable and unacceptable.

Rosenberg: This conversation reveals two contrasting versions of the ADL. Hard-right Twitter depicts the ADL as a sinister organization, while your explanation highlights the organization’s commitment to combating hate speech and promoting a healthier Twitter ecosystem.


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