Elon Musk’s Lawsuit Proves He’s a Free Speech Phony

The latest news about Twitter—no, not the platform’s name change to the already-trademarked X—should come as no surprise to free expression advocates and defenders.

Under Elon Musk’s ownership, the platform has routinely used every tool at its disposal to push back on critics. And so it is not without precedent that attorneys for X Corp. recently sent a letter to the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) threatening legal action, after several of the organization’s publications revealed repeated failures to enforce X’s policies around hate speech.

On Monday night, X confirmed it had filed a lawsuit against CCDH for “actively working to assert false and misleading claims about X and actively working to prevent public dialogue.”

CCDH—which is based in the U.K. and has a U.S. office—aims to “stop the spread of online hate and disinformation” through research and advocacy. The X letter took aim at eight of CCDH’s publications, critiquing the organization’s findings and methodology, while also accusing the nonprofit of being funded by its “commercial competitors” as well as “government entities,” claims that CCDH denied.

Despite his stated desire for the platform to become a “free-speech bastion,” Musk’s long history of silencing critics has translated into his willingness to use the site’s content policies to advance his own agenda. From deactivating the accounts of Tesla critics to suing competitors, Musk’s conception of free speech has become just another tool in his belt, applied capriciously and at his own convenience.

Since Musk took over X, it’s become evident that he has three tools of choice to silence his critics: threats, disinformation, and platform policy enforcement (or lack thereof). The CCDH letter speaks to all three.

The legal action, combined with false or unfounded accusations and a failure to enforce the site’s policies, make for an easy formula that Musk can use to silence detractors.

Musk frequently hides behind his claim of being a “free speech absolutist,” using this as license to give anti-vaxxers, neo-Nazis, and racists a platform for their views, despite the site’s hate speech policies, while at the same time ceding to an unprecedented amount of content takedown requests, many of them from authoritarian regimes.

Musk’s “free speech” era is also marked with a lack of transparency on the site, making it difficult for public interest researchers and users to gain visibility into X’s practices and how they shape the platform.

X has stopped reporting data on government censorship requests to the Lumen project—a public-facing database of government demands made to tech companies, based at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center.

Worse, the platform has not released a transparency report since Musk’s takeover. In a similar blow to access and transparency, X’s API is now free only for verified government or public service organizations, with researchers and developers having to pay for access to an API that, to make matters worse, is regularly unusable.

Taken together, Musk’s efforts to silence critics and the lack of transparency on the site create worrisome implications for both the 2024 U.S. presidential election and free expression globally.

The X site is now rife with hate speech, disinformation, and fake verification. In the U.S., false claims of a stolen 2020 election continue to thrive under Musk.

Globally, free speech-suppressing governments are using X to their advantages. With previous guardrails on government accounts from Russia, Iran, and China being removed, the platform has seen a flood of propaganda from China and Russia, and has continued to foster an unsafe environment for journalists and human rights defenders.

Sadly, Musk seems to have borrowed tactics from such authoritarian regimes, using threats and lies to wear down his critics in a bid to silence them. Despite this—and the undeniable fact that X is a mere shadow of what Twitter was prior to Musk’s acquisition last year—users still flock to it, posting updates, checking news, and sharing content daily.

As such, Musk has an obligation to those users to enforce the site’s policies consistently, to support researcher access to data, and to engage meaningfully with—rather than silence—his critics, even if the site resembles nothing of the “town square” it once promised to be.

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