Missouri AG sues Media Matters as Republicans take on critics of Musk’s X | Missouri

The attorney general of Missouri is suing Media Matters, a progressive watchdog group, alleging that it failed to turn over internal documents following its 2023 coverage of hate speech on the social media platform X. The head of the group says news outlets could be the next targets.

“Media Matters has pursued an activist agenda in its attempt to destroy X, because they cannot control it,” the lawsuit said, describing X – formerly known as Twitter – as a “free speech platform” that allows “Missourians to express their own viewpoints in the public square”.

The lawsuit, filed by Missouri’s attorney general, Andrew Bailey, on Monday, marks the second time that GOP officials have taken legal action against Media Matters to support Elon Musk, X’s billionaire owner. In November, the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, launched an investigation into Media Matters, describing the group as a “radical anti-free speech organization”.

“These state attorney generals, first Paxton and now Bailey, are directly responding to Musk’s pleas. They are helping him punish critics,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters.

The rush to defend Musk against the organization, a newly anointed enemy of the right, underscores Musk’s rising profile among Republicans as a free-speech crusader. Carusone worries that the GOP’s embrace of Musk will help the billionaire stifle important criticism of X and the rightwing extremism and hate speech that proliferate there.

“Newsrooms are next. There’s no reason to think that state AGs would stop at Media Matters,” Carusone told the Guardian.

Musk, whose takeover of Twitter began with the reinstatement of neo-Nazi users, courted rightwing leaders by positioning himself as a foot soldier in the fight against “liberal censorship” – in this case, content moderation policies on his own social network. The social media company laid off 7,000 people after Musk purchased the platform, including much of the trust and safety team as well as contractors in charge of content moderation – which digital experts said quickly led to a rise in misinformation and hate speech.

“Musk realized he could build a very, very rabid community who would traffic in a variety of debunked conspiracy theories,” said Rich Logis, a former Republican and rightwing pundit. “He couches all of that in this mythology of free speech absolutism.”

Musk’s decision to roll back content moderation on X was widely praised by rightwing leaders, including Donald Trump. Now, those same rightwing allies are helping Musk silence X’s critics.

Carusone said it should be “alarming for everybody, especially the media”, that two state attorney general’s offices appear eager to become a personal injury law firm for a tech billionaire. Bailey’s lawsuit lays out a blueprint for punishing newsrooms that dare print negative stories about X or Musk, Carusone warned.

“If you’re a newsroom, especially a resource-starved one, you have to start making decisions: is it worth it to write this one piece on Elon and X if it means that you’ll be stuck in a million-dollar legal battle?” said Carusone. “Most newsrooms do not have the resources to pay legal fees to fight Elon Musk, especially now that state AGs are stepping in.”

In the two years since he purchased the social media platform, Musk’s rightwing rebrand has granted him access to top-ranking Republicans. Earlier this month, Trump said that Musk should be a speaker at the 2024 Republican national convention. In February, a group of Republican senators met with Musk on X for a virtual event criticizing US funding for Ukraine.

Musk’s rise to mainstream political power was briefly threatened in November, when Media Matters published a report that corporate advertisements by IBM, Apple, Oracle and Comcast’s Xfinity were being placed alongside antisemitic content, including content that praised Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Top advertisers quickly pulled out of X. The company risked an estimated $75m loss in advertising revenue.

“Media Matters is pure evil,” Musk wrote in a tweet.

That same day, X announced a lawsuit against Media Matters, accusing the non-profit of defamation.

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The backlash to the Media Matters report escalated when Stephen Miller entered the fray. Miller, Trump’s former senior adviser, released a tweet suggesting that conservative state attorneys general should consider bringing legal action against Media Matters.

Just one day later, Texas’s Paxton announced an investigation into Media Matters for “potential fraudulent activity”.

The Media Matters lawsuit allows the Missouri attorney general to prove his conservative bona fides as he fights for election to his first full term against an attorney for Trump.

“It all signals to primary voters, look, there’s nobody more Maga than me,” Daniel Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University in Missouri, said.

It also sends a signal to Musk’s critics: reconsider coverage that criticizes or harms X.

Musk previously attempted to silence critics at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a non-profit that has published reports chronicling the rise of racist, antisemitic and extremist content on X. That case was dismissed this week by a US district judge in California who described Musk’s suit as one of the “most vapid extensions of law that I’ve ever heard”. Courts in Missouri, where Republicans have long controlled the majority of state offices, may prove more friendly.

Despite the dismissal, Media Matters is concerned that Musk will be emboldened by his new legal support from conservative state attorneys general. That support could allow Musk to more forcefully and effectively silence critics of X.

Robust criticism of X, Carusone said, is urgently needed ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Just last year, Musk used X to amplify rightwing conspiracy theories about the January 6 insurrection. Musk also shared support for Jacob Chansley, a Capitol rioter nicknamed the “QAnon Shaman”.

“Musk can amplify that conspiracy with his account, or he can just allow the platform’s algorithm to boost that kind of content,” Carusone said. “There is the potential to quickly and effectively supercharge some dangerous conspiracy theories.”

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