The blowback over Elon Musk’s endorsement of an antisemitic conspiracy theory on X gathered steam Friday, as several major advertisers on his social media platform cut off their spending after his comments.
The Walt Disney Co. said it was pausing spending on X, as did Lionsgate, an entertainment and film distribution company, and Paramount Global, a media giant that owns CBS. Apple, which spends tens of millions of dollars a year on X, also suspended advertising on the platform, a person with knowledge of the situation said. They followed IBM, which cut its spending with X on Thursday.
Musk, who bought Twitter last year and renamed it X, has been under scrutiny for months for allowing and even stoking antisemitic abuse on the site. That snowballed Wednesday when the tech billionaire agreed with a post on X that accused Jewish people who are facing antisemitism amid the Israel-Hamas war of pushing the “exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them” and supporting the immigration of “hordes of minorities.”
“You have said the actual truth,” Musk replied.
Jewish groups have compared the statement in the original post to a belief known as replacement theory, a conspiracy theory that posits that nonwhite immigrants, organized by Jews, intend to replace the white race. That idea fueled Robert Bowers, who raged against Jewish people online before killing 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
On Friday, the White House condemned Musk, 52, for boosting the anti-Jewish conspiracy theory. Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, said in a statement that it was “unacceptable to repeat the hideous lie behind the most fatal act of antisemitism in American history at any time, let alone one month after the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”
An X spokesperson declined to comment on the advertising pauses, and Apple didn’t respond. Axios reported earlier on Apple’s decision, and Bloomberg reported earlier on the Lionsgate suspension.
Linda Yaccarino, X’s CEO, posted on the site Thursday that the company had been “extremely clear about our efforts to combat antisemitism and discrimination.” But Friday, Musk agreed with a post on X that suggested advertisers such as IBM were pulling back from the platform to save face.
He later said accounts that made “clear calls for extreme violence” would be suspended, highlighting two phrases associated with Palestinian supporters that would not be tolerated on the site.
Advertisers have been skittish about X since Musk bought the social media service last fall and said he wanted more free speech and would loosen content moderation rules. That meant the platform could theoretically place brands’ ads next to posts with offensive or hateful speech.
Many companies, including General Motors and Volkswagen, have balked at various points over the past year at having their promotions appear alongside a heavily documented surge in hate speech, misinformation and foreign propaganda on X. In April, Musk said nearly all advertisers had returned, without indicating whether they were spending at the same levels; he later noted that ad revenue had fallen 50 percent.
Musk also swung from threatening any advertisers that dared to pause their spending with a “thermonuclear name & shame” to wooing them by choosing Yaccarino, a former top ad executive at NBCUniversal, to replace him as CEO. He picked public fights with major spenders such as Apple and churned through sales executives given the task of maintaining relationships in the advertising industry. Top advertising companies, such as IPG, urged their clients to step back from X.
Advertising had long been about 90 percent of Twitter’s revenue before Musk bought the company. Last month, X told employees that the company was valued at $19 billion. That was down from the $44 billion that Musk paid.
The heightened sensitivity around antisemitism, Musk’s penchant for public squabbling and general fatigue after months of fuss over X left many advertising professionals hesitant to weigh in on Friday.
“Clients have always had to make decisions about content they will or will not be associated with,” Renee Miller, founder of the Miller Group advertising agency in Los Angeles, said in an email. “We generally counsel our clients to not take an openly public political stand.”
IBM, which cut off about $1 million in advertising spending that it had committed to X for the rest of the year, said Thursday that it had “zero tolerance for hate speech and discrimination.” The tech company acted after a report this week from Media Matters for America, a left-wing advocacy group, which said ads from companies including Apple and IBM were appearing on X next to posts supporting white nationalism and Nazism.
Musk posted late Thursday that “Media Matters is an evil organization.”
Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters, said Musk’s “calling us evil” for pointing out what was on X was “not dissimilar from any right-wing account who we highlight.”
He added that X was “not just going to just lose money with Apple, but also the cornerstone of their strategy to woo back advertisers.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.