Elon Musk does damage control with trip to Israel

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Elon Musk is seeking to do damage control amid an advertising pullout over antisemitic remarks he made on X, the troubled social media platform once known as Twitter that the billionaire took over last year.

Musk on Monday took a tour of an Israeli kibbutz attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his guide.

The Israeli government published photos of Musk’s visit, saying he was shown a residence where a Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council chair was killed on the morning of the attack during an exchange of gunfire.

Netanyahu also took Musk to a second residence, where the tech and media mogul was told the story of a 4-year-old Israeli girl whose parents were killed before she was abducted by Hamas.

The trip, which at times resembled a state visit, was not without controversy. Critics of Netanyahu basked the Israeli leader and Musk for the image rehabilitation effort.

“Blatant antisemite & publisher of antisemitism Elon Musk should be persona non grata in Israel,” wrote Esther Solomon, the editor-in-chief of independent Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Instead, Netanyahu — plumbing new depths of amoral sycophancy — gifts him a PR visit to the kibbutzim devastated by Hamas. Profane, venal, bilious, both of them.”

Musk sparked widespread outrage and condemnation days earlier with a social media post that agreed with a user who appeared to be touting the “great replacement theory” that Jewish people and American elites are seeking to replace white American populations with nonwhite immigrants.

The post stated: “Jewish communities have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them.”

“You have said the actual truth,” Musk replied to the user.

Musk was already taking heat at the time of the post after the progressive watchdog Media Matters for America issued a report laying out how X is placing advertising next to hateful content. Musk has responded by suing the watchdog, alleging it is maliciously lying about how the platform operates.

The billionaire’s interaction with the antisemitic post and the Media Matters report have combined to result in some of the world’s largest companies, such as Apple and IBM, pulling advertising from the platform.

“It all seems contrived for the cameras and to try and salvage relationships with advertisers,” Imran Ahmad, founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told The Hill of Musk’s trip to Israel this week.

“It feels like a cynical corporate whitewashing of the fact that he has been integral in spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories himself and has turned Twitter into a platform where antisemitism can run rampant,” Ahmad added.

Musk’s visit also came as the Israeli government said Monday the country had come to an agreement for it to use Starlink satellites in Israel. Starlink, which is operated by Musk’s company SpaceX, is a network of thousands of satellites that can provide high-speed internet across the world.

Musk is looking to shift the narrative around his companies based on multiple factors, others say.

“The trip seems less of a rehabilitation effort and more of a business deal,” said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director for digital justice and civil rights at the Free Press Action Fund.

“Musk has a long history of shutting down speech he dislikes and engaging with dangerous and extremist voices. With potential control of internet access in a war time region there are far bigger concerns beyond just the content moderation on a platform he has driven to the ground.”

Musk has reshaped X’s community guidelines and loosened rules for content, some of which has led to a proliferation of far-right and unverified content spreading across the platform.

Musk himself regularly interacts with popular conservative pundits and influencers on his platform, sparking controversy last October after he promoted an unfounded theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi, Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) husband.

Musk, who has claimed “legacy media companies” are trying to “destroy” X “by any means necessary,” directly addressed the outrage his recent posts about Israel have sparked earlier this month.

“This past week, there were hundreds of bogus media stories claiming that I am antisemitic,” Musk said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish only the best for humanity and a prosperous and exciting future for all.”

But tech and media watchdogs say Musk’s track record suggests otherwise, and as a result, the unpredictable billionaire is facing a major reputational crisis.

“After he engaged with that content, he obviously realized he needed to take significant action to publicly distance himself from that,” said Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council.

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