Ben Brody says his life was going well. He had just finished college, he stayed out of trouble, and he was preparing for law school. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Elon Musk used his considerable social media influence to amplify the misguided rants of an online mob accusing the 22-year-old from California of being an undercover agent in a neo-Nazi group.
The claim, Brody told CNN, was as bizarre as it was unfounded.
But the fact that he bore a vague resemblance to someone supposedly from the group, that he was Jewish, and that he once declared in a college fraternity profile posted online that he aspired to one day work for the government, was more than enough information. for internet trolls to falsely conclude that Brody was an undercover government agent (a “Fed”) placed within the neo-Nazi group to make them look bad.
For Brody, the consequences were immediate. Overnight, he became a central character in a story concocted by people seeking to deny and downplay the actions of hate groups in today’s America.
The lies and mockery Musk engaged in on social media changed his life, Brody said. At one point, he said, he and his mother had to flee their home for fear of being attacked.
Now he is fighting back.
Brody filed a defamation lawsuit last month against Musk, the owner of X, formerly known as Twitter. The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $1 million. Brody says he wants the billionaire to apologize and retract the false claims about him.
Brody’s attorney, who is the same one who successfully sued conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, said he hopes the lawsuit will force one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. world to be aware of their negligent and harmful online activities. behavior.
“This case strikes at the heart of something that I think is going really wrong in this country,” attorney Mark Bankston said in an interview with CNN. “How powerful, very influential people, they are being too reckless with the things they say about private people, people who are just trying to get on with their lives and who have done nothing to get this attention.”
When asked for comment on the lawsuit, a lawyer for Musk told CNN that “we hope this case is dismissed.” Musk’s lawyers have until January 5, 2024 to submit their response to the court.
On the night of Saturday, June 24, 2023, Ben Brody was in Riverside, California.
About 1,000 miles away, a gay pride event was taking place near Portland, Oregon. In recent years, the city has become a flashpoint for clashes, often violent, over the country’s ongoing culture wars.
It was no big surprise then that the event became the target of rival far-right and neo-Nazi groups who began fighting among themselves while protesting. Video of the skirmish, in which far-right protesters pushed and pulled each other, quickly spread on social media.
Online conspiracy theorists soon came to the fore.
Instead of accepting the fact that two far-right groups that had previously embraced violence were responsible for the confrontation, online trolls insisted that it must be a so-called “false flag” event, a setup of some kind to make the neo- Nazis look bad.
That’s when they found Ben Brody.
The day after the Pride event, Brody started receiving text messages from friends telling him to check social media.
“They are accusing you of being a neo-Nazi,” he remembers some of his friends telling him.
Somehow, someone on social media found a photo of Brody online and decided he looked like one of the people involved in the confrontation.
Anonymous people online, self-proclaimed Internet detectives, began investigating and discovered that Brody was Jewish and had studied political science at the University of California, Riverside. On his college fraternity website, he once stated that he wanted to work for the government.
“I said I wanted to work for the government. And that’s only because I didn’t know specifically which part of the government I wanted to work for. You know, I thought I could be a lawyer,” Brody recalled in an interview with CNN.
That he was Jewish was relevant to them because conspiracy theories are often steeped in anti-Semitism, suggesting that there is a Jewish plan to control the world.
Brody’s social media inboxes filled with messages, including “Fed,” “Nazi” and “We got you.” He and his mother were forced to leave the family home after his address was posted online, he said.
Some of Brody’s friends began posting online, trying to correct the record and explain that this was a case of mistaken identity. Brody himself posted a video on Instagram where he was desperately trying to prove his innocence. He even went so far as to obtain time-stamped video surveillance footage showing him at a restaurant in Riverside, California, at the time of the fight in Oregon, as proof that he could not have been at the protest.
But it was in vain. The conspiracy theory continued to spread across the Internet, including on X. But it wasn’t just anonymous trolls who fueled the lie. Musk, the owner of the platform, joined in, amplifying the lie to his millions of followers.
Video from the event in Oregon showed masks being removed from at least one protester during the fight between opposing far-right groups. Musk asked on X on June 25: “Who were the unmasked individuals?”
Another X user linked to a tweet alleging that Brody was one of the unmasked individuals. The tweet highlighted a line from Brody’s fraternity profile that noted that he wanted to work for the government after graduating.
The tweet claimed that the alleged unmasked member of the far-right group was Brody, noting that he was a “political science student at a liberal school on a career path to the feds.”
“Very strange,” Musk responded.
Another user shared the tweet alleging Brody’s involvement and commented, “Remember when they called us conspiracy theorists for saying the feds were putting fake Nazis at rallies?”
“Always take off your masks,” Musk responded.
On June 27, after having addressed conspiracy theories on the topic for several days, Musk alleged that the Oregon skirmish was a false flag. “It looks like one is a college student (who wants to join the government) and another may be a member of Antifa, but it’s a likely false flag situation nonetheless,” he tweeted.
“I knew this was snowballing, but once Elon Musk commented, I thought, ‘boom, that’s the final nail in the coffin,’” Brody recalled.
Musk has more followers than anyone else on X: about 150 million as of late June, around the time he tweeted about the Oregon fight, according to Internet Archive records. That tweet has been viewed more than 1.2 million times, according to X’s own data.
Brody worried that his name would be forever associated with neo-Nazism and that he wouldn’t be able to get a job. Although he had finished college, he had not yet graduated and said that some of the accounts that sent him messages threatened to contact his university. “My life is ruined,” he thought.
Trying to clear his name, he gave an interview to Vice.com, which caught the attention of Mark Bankston.
Bankston is best known as the attorney who successfully took on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in court on behalf of parents who lost their children in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting.
Bankston said Brody’s case is not only an opportunity to help clear the young man’s name, but it could also force what he considers a necessary conversation about the vitriolic nature of online speech.
The lawsuit filed last month in Travis County, Texas (the same county in which Bankston successfully sued Jones), alleges that Musk’s claims about Brody are part of a “serial pattern of slander” by the multimillionaire.
Musk, the lawsuit argues, is “perhaps the most influential of all influencers, and his support of the accusation against Ben prompted other influencers and social media users to continue their attacks and harassment, as well as to post accusations against Ben that will remain online forever. .”
Shortly after taking over Twitter in 2022, Musk said the platform must “become, by far, the most accurate source of information about the world.”
But instead, the lawsuit alleges that “Musk has been personally using the platform to consistently spread false statements while propping up and amplifying the most reprehensible elements of conspiracy-ridden Twitter.”
The lawsuit describes how Musk has engaged with accounts that traffic in racism and anti-Semitism and lists instances in which he shared or publicly engaged with conspiracy theories, including last October when he shared false claims about the attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy. Pelosi.
The lawsuit alleges that in August, after Musk learned from his lawyers about Brody’s defamation case, Musk refused to delete his tweets.
Bankston and his client said the lawsuit is about much more than money.
“I just want to do things right,” Brody told CNN. “It’s not about revenge. I’m not angry. It’s not resentment. “I just want to make things right, apologize, so this doesn’t happen to anyone else again.”