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How a Smear Campaign Against NPR Led Elon Musk to Feud with Signal

Right-Wing Media and the Encrypted Messaging Debate

For nearly two weeks, a heated debate has raged on X (formerly Twitter) about the trustworthiness of encrypted messaging apps. Users concerned about privacy and security are torn between Signal and Telegram. Signal offers end-to-end encryption for individual and small group messages, while Telegram provides broadcast channels and messaging but is not end-to-end encrypted by default. This debate, typically confined to cybersecurity and privacy experts, gained broader attention thanks to Elon Musk and his 183 million followers on X. What started as an esoteric discussion escalated into a viral conspiracy theory, giving me a front-row seat to the manufactured controversy. NPR is in hot waters with Elon Musk.

NPR and Katherine Maher: The Catalyst

On April 9, Uri Berliner, a former NPR editor, published an essay in the conservative-leaning Free Press, criticizing NPR for catering to a small subset of left-wing America. This debate over NPR’s alleged liberal bias is not new, but the article gained traction shortly after Katherine Maher became NPR’s new CEO. Conservative activists, led by right-wing activist Chris Rufo, dug into Maher’s past, uncovering tweets that they labeled as “progressive.” These tweets, while not inherently controversial, became fodder for a smear campaign, transforming Maher into a controversial figure on X.

The Transitive Property of Bad People

Rufo and his allies employed a smear tactic known as the Transitive Property of Bad People, which connects individuals and institutions through guilt by association. They unearthed a 2016 tweet from a Tunisian activist suggesting Maher was secretly affiliated with the CIA, despite her denials and lack of evidence. Rufo’s narrative evolved, painting Maher as a “regime-change agent” involved in North African revolutions and now aiming to bring similar upheaval to America. This conspiracy theory extended to Maher’s role on the board of the Signal Foundation, questioning the integrity of the encrypted messaging app.

Elon Musk Enters the Fray

When NPR Reputation was Attacked: Elon Musk Clash with Signal
Elon Musk Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

The conspiracy reached a wider audience on May 6 when Elon Musk, without providing evidence, tweeted about “known vulnerabilities” in Signal. This insinuation fueled doubts about Signal’s security and prompted discussions about Telegram as a potential alternative. Jack Dorsey, former Twitter CEO, also shared Rufo’s allegations, adding credibility to the unfounded claims.

Community notes and journalists quickly fact-checked Musk’s claims, emphasizing Signal’s open-source code and robust security scrutiny. Signal’s CEO responded, clarifying that Maher’s role could not compromise the app’s integrity. Despite these clarifications, the viral conspiracy theory persisted, and Telegram’s CEO, Pavel Durov, seized the opportunity to promote Telegram as a private communication method.

The original debate about NPR’s bias now seems trivial compared to the larger manufactroversies that followed. These second-order controversies, while seemingly far-fetched, have significant real-world consequences. They erode trust in reputable institutions and can mislead activists, especially outside the US, into using less secure communication methods.

Lessons and Actions

Support Targets of Smear Campaigns

Institutions and individuals must understand how smear campaigns work and respond promptly to misinformation. Silence can be misconstrued as guilt, while timely rebuttals can mitigate the spread of false information.

Media Literacy and Awareness

Educating the public about the mechanics of smear campaigns is crucial. Highlighting common rhetorical tricks and the lack of evidence in these attacks can help people recognize and resist manipulation.

Understanding the Role of Influencers

High-profile figures like Elon Musk have the power to amplify misinformation, intentionally or not. Their statements can sway public opinion and cause real harm, underscoring the need for responsible communication from influential individuals.

Conclusion

The smear campaign against NPR and Katherine Maher, fueled by right-wing media and influential figures like Elon Musk, demonstrates the power of misinformation in today’s digital age. By understanding and addressing these tactics, we can better protect public trust and ensure a more informed and discerning audience.

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