This has not been a good month in the fight against disinformation.

First, NewsGuard published a report uncovering a network of 167 Russian disinformation sites controlled by John Mark Dougan, a former Florida deputy sheriff who fled to Moscow after being investigated for computer hacking and extortion. The disinformation tracking service says there are now more of these “pink slime” sites — which present themselves as independent news outlets but are actually funded by partisan groups—than legitimate local news sites.

Then, Reuters reported on a disinformation campaign funded by the US military that aimed to sow doubt about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and other life-saving aid supplied by China. The campaign used phony internet accounts—supposedly Filipino citizens—to create an anti-vax campaign.

Then, a survey published in Nature and conducted by researchers at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon, found that “on average, about 79.8% of advertisers that used digital advertising platforms in a given week appeared on misinformation websites that week,” suggesting that despite talk of “brand safety,” major advertisers are still funding misinformation and disinformation to the tune of billions of dollars.

Then, House Republicans announced an investigation into the misinformation tracking company NewsGuard, citing concerns about "protected First Amendment speech" and "censorship campaigns,"  yet another attempt by conservatives to suggest that efforts to identify disinformation—or call attention to racism—somehow infringes on freedom of speech.

Then, the Washington Post reported that the Stanford Internet Observatory, which published some of the most influential analysis of the spread of false information on social media, may be forced to shut down amid political and legal attacks. Two lawsuits and two congressional inquiries have reportedly cost Stanford millions of dollars in legal fees.

And then, to cap it all, WPP announced that it is inviting Elon Musk to Cannes.

Lest we forget, a survey of those in attendance at the World Economic Forum in Daos earlier this year—a group that includes many of the most powerful corporate leaders around the world—cited misinformation and disinformation as the most severe global risk over the next two years.

And furthermore, a study by the European Commission last year found Elon Musk’s X (the former Twitter) to be “the platform with the largest ratio of mis- or disinformation posts,”” as well as the highest ratio of disinformation actors. (X has withdrawn from the EU’s disinformation “code of practice,” which other major social media platforms have pledged to support.)

The prevalence of disinformation on X is no accident. As Foreign Policy magazine reported last year, in an article describing the site as “a sewer of disinformation”: “Few recent actions have done more to make a social media platform safe for disinformation, extremism, and authoritarian regime propaganda than the changes to Twitter since its purchase by Elon Musk in 2022.”

The platform disbanded its trust and safety teams; revoked bans on extremist accounts; removed labels informing users that accounts were associated with foreign governments (including Russian and Chinese propaganda outlets); censored journalists critical of Musk; and allowed for a sharp increase in hate speech and harassment.

An investigation by the BBC found that Twitter Blue accounts were fueling the worst misinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while a Bloomberg report made it clear that “community notes” (essentially Twitter’s only remaining check on disinformation) was utterly failing to stop of the spread of lies about the conflct in Gaza.

And yet The Verge reported in May of last year that WPP’s Group M no longer considered X to be a “high risk” environment for brands. And now WPP chief executive plans to sit down with Musk at Cannes.

Given that major corporations view disinformation as a destabilizing force, and that the spread of disinformation is an existential threat to the public relations business in particular, Musk’s presence in Cannes is disheartening.

And that’s before we even start to consider Musk’s tireless promotion of anti-Semitic and white supremacist tropes, on his platform and via his own personal account.

Last year, a Washington Post investigation found that “Twitter is amplifying hate speech in its ‘For You; timeline” because its recommendation algorithm pushed racist content—including tweets from self-proclaimed Nazis—to accounts that followed “extremist” content.

And just this month, a review by NBC News found that X is still placing advertisements in the search results for at least 20 hashtags used to promote racist and antisemitic extremism, including #whitepower and #unitethewhite to dog0whistle terms such as #groyper (a movement of online white nationalists) and #kalergi (a conspiracy theory about eliminating white people from Europe).

Musk has also trafficked in anti-Semitism, responding to a claim that “Jewish communties [sic] have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites” with a ringing endorsement: “You have said the actual truth.”

He has similarly amplified tweets from the @eyeslasho account, which specializes in long-discredited tropes about racial disparities in intelligence and physiology. In January he endorsed a tweet suggesting that graduates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities have IQs approaching “borderline intellectual impairment.”

And then there's the rampant transphobia, condemned by the Human Rights Campaign for "prioritizing the bottom line over the lived experience and humanity of transgender people" after promoting a transphobic disinformation film and changing the platform's policy to allow the misgendering of trans people. (He also, inexplicably, considers "cisgender" to be a slur.)

It will be interesting to see whether employees can still take WPP’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion—"Our mission is to build and foster an inclusive culture of belonging”—seriously when the company is platforming an individual who earlier this year wrote that: “DEI is just another word for racism,” adding: “Shame on anyone who uses it.”

It is, of course, entirely possible that Read will aggressively confront Musk on his spread of disinformation, his history of racist and anti-Semitic tweets, and perhaps even his apparent belief that public relations people can be replaced by a poop emoji. But the title of the session, “Exploring the New Frontiers of Innovation,” suggests something far tamer and infinitely less interesting.

Image attribution: The Royal Society