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10 August 2023

Elon Musk is trying to silence his critics

X is threatening to sue an anti-hate group – the consequences could be catastrophic.

By Sarah Manavis

In the nine months since Elon Musk bought Twitter, his decision-making has proved to be a combination of unpredictable and transparent. Examples include the mass cull of Twitter staff within days of taking over, and his subsequent requests for many of them to return; renaming Twitter “X”, one of the least user-friendly names you could think of; his heralding of free speech on the platform, while suspending journalists who criticised his work.

These acts have been mostly self-destructive, with Twitter itself the victim of Musk’s inconstancy (its value is understood to be half of what Musk first bought it for). But after months of detrimental tinkering internally, the CEO is now looking at those he perceives as an external threat to “X”.

At the end of July it was reported that Twitter threatened to sue the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a global non-profit organisation that researches how human rights and civil liberties are threatened online and recommends governmental and platform policy changes. Twitter claimed that “tens of millions of dollars” were “lost in advertising revenues” because of the anti-hate organisation’s actions, among other complaints.

CCDH’s work is wide-ranging and has included in-depth investigations into every major social media platform – from Facebook to TikTok – as well as reports on broader trends in online harms, such as the negative impacts of artificial intelligence. It had regularly investigated Twitter before Musk bought the platform; since he took over, it has carefully charted the way hate speech has risen. This included a report on the huge spikes in anti-LGBT language (up 119 per cent) and the rise in hate speech after Musk allowed the return of banned accounts, as well as publishing research that found 99 per cent of Twitter Blue users who posted hate speech did not have their content moderated by Twitter.

[See also: A day in the life of an AI mover-and-shaker]

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The warning to the CCDH follows a string of other legal threats from Musk, targeting both his competitors and those trying to hold Twitter to account. On Monday (7 August), X Corp – Twitter’s parent company – accused the European Climate Foundation of colluding with the CCDH, giving them illicit access to Brandwatch, a tool that allows users to monitor tweets. Last month, he threatened legal action against Meta’s Twitter rival app, Threads. The platform accused the company that owns Facebook of hiring ex-Twitter employees to illegally access “trade secrets”. In December even a Twitter user whose account used public flight records to track the movements of Musk’s private jet was threatened with a lawsuit.

Musk has historically demonstrated intense, short-lived bursts of passion for projects – from shelving his plan to build a high-speed transportation line, the Hyperloop, six months after announcing full-scale testing, to curtailing a project to create a series of underground tunnels across the US to beat traffic (only two were built and are reportedly prone to congestion). His interest seems to wane. (See his attempt to pull out of the Twitter acquisition last year, only going through with the purchase after he was forced to.) Many assumed the same would happen now, and that he would hand over responsibility for running Twitter to someone else. But his aggressive approach to criticism suggests Musk is committed to shaping Twitter himself, and is prepared to remove obstacles in his way. Perhaps his true goal is to create a space in which he – and others – can say whatever he wants totally unchecked, free from any repercussions.

If Musk was to succeed in silencing groups such as the CCDH – which are among only a handful of organisations holding powerful tech companies to account – it would effectively license social media companies not to properly moderate hate speech and harmful content online. We should fear the power it would give not just Musk, but other tech CEOs.

It’s unclear whether the lawsuit threat against the CCDH will proceed any further. The CCDH, however, has been clear that it will fight if it does. “Elon Musk’s latest legal move is straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” Imran Ahmed, the organisation’s founder and CEO, said in a statement following the lawsuit. “He is now showing he will stop at nothing to silence anyone who criticises him for his own decisions and actions.

“The Center for Countering Digital Hate’s research shows that hate and disinformation is spreading like wildfire on the platform under Musk’s ownership and this lawsuit is a direct attempt to silence those efforts. People don’t want to see or be associated with hate, anti-Semitism, and the dangerous content that we all see proliferating on X… CCDH has no intention of stopping our independent research – Musk will not bully us into silence.”

[See also: The risible origin story of “X”]

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