Elon Musk is off to a troubling start as the new owner of Twitter, using the social media platform to amplify an obviously false accusation against a Twitter employee pushed by notorious far-right troll Mike Cernovich.
On Tuesday night, Musk responded to a tweet from Cernovich, who made blatantly false claims against Jim Baker, Twitter’s deputy general counsel. Cernovich falsely claimed that when he was serving as the FBI’s general counsel, Baker had “facilitated fraud” by setting up a meeting between former Democratic Party lawyer Michael A. Sussmann and the FBI. (These accusations were tied to a right-wing effort to discredit the Trump-Russia investigations.) “Sounds pretty bad,” Musk replied, further amplifying the defamatory claim to his more than 86 million followers on the platform.
Baker has had a long career as a non-partisan attorney at the Justice Department under presidents of both parties, in addition to stints in the private sector, and he even helped curb some of the wiretapping abuses during the George W. Bush administration.
But even to an untrained eye, if Musk had given a cursory reading of Cernovich's screen grabs smearing Baker, he would have seen just what a sloppy hit job this was. (The alternative possibility is that Musk did read this, but still failed to understand it.)
Cernovich linked to an Associated Press article on the investigation by special counsel John Durham, who was appointed by Donald Trump’s Attorney General Bill Barr to perform yet another probe of the Trump-Russia investigations — after they were dissatisfied that an earlier Justice Department probe had rejected many of Trump’s attacks on the original investigation’s legitimacy.
Cernovich twisted the details in the AP article to attack Baker and say “he facilitated fraud.” But the article explained that prosecutors allege Sussmann had “misled” Baker about whether he was working on behalf of any client by bringing information about Russian attempts to access computers in Trump Tower in 2016. Even if Durham’s allegations against Sussmann are true, there’s no accusation that Baker had “facilitated fraud.” In fact, Durham had alleged that Baker had been lied to. (Besides, the evidence involved was not “fabricated” as Cernovich also claimed.)
Musk’s online association with Cernovich and other far-right provocateurs is also relevant in light of another comment Musk made Tuesday afternoon, when he tweeted, “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.”
Many of Cernovich’s statements on and off of Twitter could indeed expose a person to potential legal trouble, at least in civil litigation if not criminal charges, and fall outside of Musk’s purported standard of allowing any speech that “matches the law.” Cernovich has promoted forged documents, smeared his opponents as pedophiles, and also pushed the online “Pizzagate” hoax that helped incite a deranged man to fire gun shots inside a restaurant in Washington, D.C. Following that incident, Cernovich continued to publicly suggest that the restaurant was a place “where a lot of pedophiles meet.”
Cernovich is also one of many far-right figures who promoted conspiracy theories about the murder in 2016 of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Fox News host Sean Hannity then took up the story on a wider scale, in an attempt to exonerate Russian hackers who stole the DNC’s emails during the election and strategically leaked them in an effort to help their preferred candidate, Donald Trump. Fox News eventually paid to settle a lawsuit from Rich’s parents.
Hypothetically, if Cernovich had a similar national platform as Hannity, and thus became the target of litigation by Rich’s bereaved family, would Musk have stood by Cernovich’s use of his Twitter account to spread the lies?