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News Analysis May 3, 2022 5:38 PM EST

Elon Musk asks who is funding woke advocacy groups that call for boycotts

"Who funds these organizations that want to control your access to information? Let’s investigate …" he wrote.

Elon Musk asks who is funding woke advocacy groups that call for boycotts
Nick Monroe Cleveland, Ohio

Progressive "civil society" political action groups published a letter addressed to Twitter’s advertisers on Tuesday ahead of their annual conference. Their aim is to economically force Elon Musk to maintain the current censorship status quo at the social media giant.

Groups like Media Matters claim that big name brands have the power to leverage Twitter within contracts and make moderation policy demands. "As top advertisers on Twitter (TWTR), your brand risks association with a platform amplifying hate, extremism, health misinformation, and conspiracy theorists," they write in bold.  

One of the demands from this letter is guaranteeing people like former President Trump and anyone else previously permanently banned is not allowed to return to the platform.

Elon Musk wants to know who is funding some of these groups.

(When it comes to 501(c)4 groups, they don’t have to disclose funding, they can engage in unlimited lobbying and be openly partisan.)

To partially answer Musk’s question: Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation needed to hire a Hillary Clinton lawyer earlier this year to clean up the group’s scattershot finances, MediaJustice received a grant from the left-leaning Knight Foundation, Media Matters ironically has received $68,200 from Vanguard in the past, despite the fact Vanguard is also invested in Twitter. In continuation of that theme of irony, Twitter themselves donated $100,000 to Access Now in July 2021.

To name a few. As for the target audience, this letter is intended for advertisers like Apple, Best Buy, HBO, and Coca-Cola.

"Musk intends to steamroll those safeguards and provide a megaphone to extremists who traffic in disinformation, hate, and harassment. Under the guise of 'free speech,' his vision will silence and endanger marginalized communities, and tear at the fraying fabric of democracy," the letter says.

Elon links to a CNN story published on Tuesday that propped up the contents of the letter. The civil society organizations who sign the letter say ad firms can make the following demands through contract deals:

  • The first demand of the letter is they want Elon Musk not to unban people that Twitter previously permanently banned. "Keep accounts including those of public figures and politicians that were removed for egregious violations of Twitter Rules – such as harassment, violence, and hateful conduct – off the platform," is their exact wording. The letter mentions how since 2020, Twitter has had a "civic integrity policy," which in practice amplified the pressure on former President Trump leading up to his formal permanent Twitter ban in January 2021.
  • The second demand is "beyond algorithmic transparency, ensure algorithmic accountability, preserve people’s privacy, and commit to depolarizing the algorithm." This section requests Musk ensure that any pulling back of the curtain will also have Twitter equipped for dealing with the consequences of that decision.
  • The third demand is "continue Twitter’s commitment to transparency and researcher access." While it's theoretically advertised for the sake of "accountability," in practice it amounts to providing API resources for the sake of research projects by political think tank groups.

Media Matters CEO Angelo Carusone frames the situation as ad brands needing "protection" from brand damages.

"If Elon Musk comes in and gets rid of all the brand safety protections, I think Coca-Cola should be able to cancel their contract. It would be very revealing if Twitter refuses to or does not sign or does not give those cancellation options," Carusone told CNN.

Other groups named in the letter’s heading are Accountable Tech and Ultraviolet.

The response from Twitter’s current management for now, per an advertiser filing, is that the company has "no planned changes to our commitment to brand safety." They say they’re unsure what changes are exactly in store when Musk takes over.

Last week it was reported that Twitter’s Trust & Safety and policy lead Vijaya Gadde got emotional about that aspect of the company’s future amid the Musk buyout.

The Sleeping Giants, an online boycott activist group, accused Elon Musk of not being a fan of free speech for calling out the letter.

Twitter’s current global marketing lead Kelly Huffman applauded the work of the Sleeping Giants back in early 2019, when the Sleeping Giants went after right-wing media outlets.

Other big tech platforms have been targeted: the #StopHateForProfit boycott campaign against Facebook in 2020 ended up with Zuckerberg hiring civil rights leaders for audits and "cracking down on extremism in both public and private groups" according to Forbes.

As for Google: what started with the Wall Street Journal framing popular YouTuber Pewdiepie as "anti-semitic" turned into a larger media campaign that cost Google millions of dollars until YouTube gave in to the demands of advertisers, allowing companies more stringent access to what video content their advertisements show up on.

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