Hiltzik: Should anyone be in business with Elon Musk?

Nov 18, 2023 | Canyon Crest Guide Newspaper | 0 comments

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The question of how you solve a problem like Elon Musk has crossed the line from an amusing little parlor game to an issue with serious implications for anyone doing business with him, including major corporations and the U.S. government.

Little that Musk says or does escapes popular notice, but a tweet he posted Wednesday on X, the platform he owns which was formerly known as Twitter, is in a category all his own.

Musk replied to a user’s antisemitic tweet accusing Jewish communities of “pushing the exact kind of …hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them.” The user went on to accuse “western Jewish populations” of supporting the flooding of the U.S. by “hordes of minorities.”

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Musk’s reply was: “You have said the actual truth.” Within hours, his tweet had attracted more than 6 million views.

Monitors of far-right tenets recognize this one as the “great replacement theory.” It holds that Jews are behind a movement to import nonwhite immigrants in order to diminish the political standing of the white majority.

The American Jewish Committee, in a tweet of its own, called it “the deadliest antisemitic conspiracy theory in modern U.S. history.”

You have said the actual truth.

— Elon Musk endorses an openly antisemitic tweet

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A white nationalist and Nazi claim, it was the theme of the antisemitic “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and the motivation behind the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, in which 11 worshipers were shot to death.

The perpetrator of the synagogue terror attack, Robert Bowers, has been sentenced to death.

This is not the first time that Musk has purveyed antisemitism on X. In September, he accused the Anti-Defamation League of destroying much of the value of X by pressuring advertisers to abandon the platform.

“The ADL, because they are so aggressive in their demands to ban social media accounts for even minor infractions, are ironically the biggest generators of anti-Semitism on this platform,” Musk tweeted.

He was responding to a tweet quoting the far-right conspiracy-monger Alex Jones calling the Anti-Defamation League “the most pro-Hitler organization I’ve ever seen.” Musk asserted that the ADL is “somehow complicit in creating the very thing they complain about!”

Musk’s decimation of the content-moderation team at X has opened the gates to a torrent of antisemitic, racist and hate speech of all varieties at the platform.

Linda Yaccarino, the former television executive whom Musk appointed CEO of X in May, has claimed in tweets and other public statements that the platform is acting aggressively against hate speech.

“X’s point of view has always been very clear that discrimination by everyone should STOP across the board,” Yaccarino tweeted Thursday as the uproar over Musk’s tweet was mounting. “X has also been extremely clear about our efforts to combat antisemitism and discrimination. There’s no place for it anywhere in the world — it’s ugly and wrong. Full stop.”

Plainly, her effort to tamp down X’s reputation as a haven for hate speech — assuming it genuinely exists — has failed. Whether it can be taken seriously as long as it is explicitly undermined by the owner of X is doubtful.

On Thursday, IBM announced that it was suspending its advertising on X indefinitely. The company’s action came the day after the watchdog organization Media Matters for America documented that its ads had appeared on X next to Nazi content.

Apple also withdrew its advertising, according to Axios. So has the film studio Lions Gate Entertainment.

Ads for numerous other prominent companies, including Comcast’s NBCUniversal and Oracle, have also appeared next to hateful content, according to Media Matters. Comcast has said it is investigating the report; as of this writing, Oracle has been silent.

The European Commission also said its services would halt paid advertising on X and other social media platforms.

“We have seen an alarming increase in disinformation and hate speech on several social media platforms in recent weeks, an EC spokesman said, naming X specifically, according to Variety. “We have therefore advised services to refrain from advertising at this stage on concerned social media platforms, where we have concerns that such content appears in an inappropriate context and thus affects the effectiveness of our communication and our messages.”

The X account pages of EC agencies will remain accessible for official communications, the spokesman said.

Following the latest Musk tweet, a group of more than 160 Jewish community leaders called on “Disney, Apple, Amazon, and other large advertisers to stop funding X through their ad spend,” and for Apple and Google to remove X from their app stores.

“Make no mistake,” the leaders stated: “Elon Musk is not only powerful because of his own riches. It is because these companies and leaders empower him. In so doing, they are participants in mainstreaming hate that leads to murders.”

Musk’s amplification of antisemitism also poses a problem for the U.S. government and thus for American taxpayers generally. SpaceX, a private company he controls, is a major partner holding contracts from the Defense Department and NASA.

Musk’s behavior raises the question of whether any company he leads can be an appropriate government contractor. At a press briefing in August, Pentagon spokesman Patrick S. Ryder dodged that question.

Asked whether the Defense Department would review Musk’s security clearances, Ryder said, “We have well-developed processes and procedures to look at things like contracts and services that [are] person-independent — personality-independent….We’ll continue to conduct business with a wide variety of partners in industry, and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Musk’s behavior presents a quandary for the government agencies because their outsourcing of crucial services and infrastructure to commercial companies such as SpaceX leaves them with few practical alternatives. NASA, for example, recently signed a $5-billion contract for 14 astronaut missions to the International Space Station through 2030.

The government’s ability to act in response to expressions of sympathy with white supremacist and Nazi thinking is unclear. Government regulations dating back to the 1980s list several grounds for “debarment” — that is, banning companies from bidding on contracts — and suspension of existing contracts.

These include committing fraud or other criminal offenses related to obtaining or performing the contract, antitrust violations, and “embezzlement, theft, forgery, bribery, making false statements, tax evasion, or other similar offenses.”

None of these clearly applies to Musk’s tweets. The regulations, however, also incorporate a catch-all provision applying to indications of “a lack of business integrity or business honesty that seriously and directly affects the present responsibility of a Government contractor or subcontractor.”

Presumably, Musk’s federal contract supervisors would have to make the case that his amplification of antisemitic and white supremacist thinking falls into that category.

The government has been grappling with the behavior of Musk in connection with its SpaceX contracts. In August, the Department of Justice sued the company for discriminating against legal asylum seekers and refugees in hiring, a violation of U.S. law.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Texas blocked the lawsuit, agreeing with SpaceX’s position that administrative law judges such as the one who would hear the case did not have the constitutional authority to do so.

The Defense Department also tangled with Musk over his claim to have unilaterally shut down or blocked Ukraine’s access to SpaceX’s Starlink broadband internet service. That action conflicted with U.S. interests in the region; the Pentagon later said it would buy Starlink’s terminals and service for Ukraine, taking them out of SpaceX’s hands.

None of this leaves the government entirely bereft of leverage over Musk. SpaceX will be dependent on government contracts for years, if not decades. Nothing mandates that the Pentagon and NASA fund the company or treat it as a suitable bidder in the future, as long as it’s associated with Musk.

That’s especially true now that he has shown himself to be more than a mere embarrassment to anyone doing business with him. He’s a social virus.

His promotion of antisemitism risks fomenting violence that could cost innocent lives. He has made clear his thoughts and beliefs, which occupy the darkest reaches of inhumanity. It’s time to start hacking away at his influence.

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