"Actions speak louder than words" was the opaque post that billionaire Elon Musk chose to share with his millions of followers on X (formerly Twitter) at the beginning of his visit yesterday to Kfar Aza, a kibbutz near the border with the Gaza Strip, accompanied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many Kfar Aza residents were murdered or abducted in the attack by Hamas on October 7. In a video released of the tour, Musk looks like an unwilling visitor. With a bodyguard behind him holding up an umbrella for him, he walked stony-faced among the kibbutz houses, received explanations, asked few questions, and hardly spoke to his colleagues. His appearance ranged from bored to stunned.
In a conversation with Netanyahu a few hours later on an open forum on X, which attracted about 130,000 listeners and altogether about 200,000 views, he gave Netanyahu full scope to state his case, said little, and when he did make a remark he took care to sound balanced. He said that it was disturbing to see demonstrations in support of Hamas in American cities, but that it was clear that there was concern for the Palestinian people, and that "Israel has killed civilians also in Gaza, but there’s an important difference here, which is that Israel tries to avoid killing civilians." Musk expressed shock at the deliberate killing by Hamas terrorists and condemned those who rejoiced at the murders, but was careful to sound conciliatory, and after a series of long speeches by Netanyahu he wound up by expressing hope "for a better future for the whole world."
Musk landed in Tel Aviv yesterday morning and continued straight to his tour of the Gaza border area with Netanyahu, where he met Shaar Hanegev Regional Council acting chairperson Yossi Keren in the house of the chairperson who was murdered on October 7, Ofir Libstein. From there he travelled to Jerusalem, to the Knesset, where he watched footage of the atrocities committed in the Hamas attack. This was followed by meetings with National Unity party leader Benny Gantz and with President Isaac Herzog.
Behind the humanitarian appearances and the concern for peace in the Middle East lie commercial interests and the rehabilitation of Musk’s image. Ever since he acquired Twitter, he has become embroiled in anti-Semitic statements and accused of removing restrictions on anti-Semitic discourse on Twitter/X, and time after time he has had to put out fires, until the next scandal broke.
To bring back the advertisers
Since Musk took over, X’s monthly revenue in the US has fallen by at least 55% every month in comparison with the corresponding month in the previous year, according to data from Guideline. To stem the tide, the CEO appointed by Musk, Linda Yaccarino, declared that more than 1,500 brands had returned to advertising on the platform, and that 90% of the leading advertisers were back.
All that went down the tubes, however, because of the latest anti-Semitism storm. When it emerged that their advertisements had appeared alongside anti-Semitic posts on the social network, Apple, IBM, and Disney announced that they would cease advertising on it. This followed the release of a study on the matter last week.
For Musk, the goal is clear - to reach profitability, preferably this year. The anti-Semitism uproar and the effect of the war in the Gaza Strip caught the social network at a bad time. The fourth quarter should be the strongest for any advertising company with a will to live, and that now looks far from attainable for X. If 2023 is a catastrophe, it will be hard for Musk to argue that he has succeeded in his mission of "rehabilitating" Twitter. Among others, he has to answer to the Qataris and certain families from Dubai that helped him buy the social network in a deal worth billions over a year ago.
After the devastating blow of the advertisers’ withdrawal, Musk is trying to appear as someone taking responsibility for the event, in the hope of calming the storm and bringing the advertisers back. He likes to portray himself as a patriot, and as long as US battle fleets are deployed in the Middle East, he can consider himself one, without being accused of love of Zion. He realized that general declarations such as he made last week, that he would donate the advertising revenue from posts about the Gaza Strip to hospitals in Israel and to "humanitarian organizations in Gaza", were inadequate.
With the outbreak of war, Musk again became involved in anti-Semitic statements, and came in for criticism from senior figures in Silicon Valley, among them Facebook founder Dustin Moskovitz, and Kristin Hull, founder and CEO of Nia Impact Capital, who manages holdings in Musk’s electric vehicle company Tesla, and who called for measures against him, including possible removal by Tesla’s board. Musk responded positively to a post that accused Jews of pushing "dialectical hatred against whites", writing, "You have said the actual truth."
Before that, Musk became involved in a confrontation with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which fights antisemitism in the US. That spat was apparently the trigger for his previous meeting with Netanyahu, just two months ago, in California. Musk claimed that the ADL was conducting a lobby against X, alleging that the network was continually promoting anti-Semitic content, and he accused the ADL of causing a loss of revenue to X. "Our US advertising revenue is still down 60%, primarily due to pressure on advertisers by @ADL (that’s what advertisers tell us), so they almost succeeded in killing X/Twitter!" he wrote, and threatened to sue the organization.
Musk, however, has mainly himself to blame. Since he bought Twitter/X, many employees in the network’s content management function have been laid off, restrictive content policies have been removed, identity verification mechanisms have been weakened, and the algorithm promoted more anti-Israel and anti-Semitic content a long time before the October 7 massacre. At the beginning of the war, the European Commission, under recent European Union legislation, demanded that Musk should be held accountable for what was happening on his social network, and sought answers on how he was combating hate speech and misinformation.
Musk’s visit to Israel and his public backing for Netanyahu, even if it looks as though it was something forced upon him, is a necessary step for him. The Israeli narrative also won a grand stage: through his visit, Musk has promoted Israel’s line of advocacy on the various media, although, in the Jewish state, Musk was not confronted with his anti-Semitic statements. Whether this was a matter of a host’s politeness or of selective memory, neither Netanyahu, nor Herzog, nor even the president of Yad Vashem, said anything against the person who is considered responsible for one of the biggest engines of anti-Semitic content of our generation.
Internet for the Middle East
Advertising on X and Musk’s image were not the only motivations for the Israel visit. Musk came here to promote business to the end, with a clear agenda. He wants the Internet service of his company SpaceX, called Starlink, to become available all over the world as soon as possible. Starlink works via satellite rather than by fixed infrastructure in the ground, making it a possibly life-saving service in difficult areas. The costs are accordingly high, and Musk’s potential gain is clear.
At the end of last month, Musk declared that SpaceX would try to help international aid agencies in the Gaza Strip to connect to the Internet via Starlink services.
Since the beginning of the war, the Ministry of Communications has been in negotiations with Starlink on connecting settlements on the front lines in the north and south of Israel via the network. Starlink’s activity in Israel was due to begin shortly after the outbreak of war on October 7, but the process was halted after Musk’s announcement.
At the time, Minister of Communications SAhlomo Karhi said that Israel would use every means available to fight Musk’s decision, on the grounds that Hamas would use the Starlink network for its own purposes, and that Musk could have made SpaceX’s help conditional on the release of the hostages seized by Hamas in its attack on Israel on October 7.
Musk responded: "No Starlink terminal has attempted to connect from Gaza. If one does, we will take extraordinary measures to confirm that it is used *only* for purely humanitarian reasons. Moreover, we will do a security check with both the US and Israeli governments before turning on even a single terminal. We are not so naïve."
Even before Musk landed in Israel, Karhi announced that they had reached agreement, the core of the matter being that operation of Starlink ground stations would be subject to approval by the Ministry of Communications, including in the Gaza Strip. Musk in effect submitted to the Israeli demand for full control in order to ensure that the system was not used for nefarious purposes in the Gaza Strip. The Ministry of Communications is sure that this will prevent Hamas from using the technology. As far as Musk is concerned, it means increased revenue from the developing technology, and promotion of his agenda: supporting Israel, chiefly when this boosts revenue and rehabilitates his image.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 28, 2023.
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