Musk joins the right-wing legal crusade against tech researchers

Ellery Roberts Biddle



Another social media research organization is being sued this week, this time by the company formerly known as Twitter. On Monday, X filed a lawsuit against the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that tracks violent and hateful speech on social media. X claims that the research organization violated its terms of use when it scraped data from the platform, among other allegations. 

Much of the filing focuses on the impact that the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s research has had on advertising and, by extension, on X’s bottom line. The group regularly uses its findings to pressure big brands to stop buying ads on X because showing ads next to tweets filled with racist speech and political disinformation is generally regarded as bad for business. This increasingly popular tactic among tech-focused civil rights advocacy groups in the U.S. has proven powerful and may indeed be one reason that X’s ad revenues have plummeted since Musk took over.

The court filing and the company’s all-but-incomprehensible blogpost about the lawsuit say plenty about how this strategy threatens X’s business model. But the company also argues, as Musk so often does, that X is simply trying to protect people’s rights to free speech and that the researchers want to undermine it. Nevermind that hate speech and threats of violence are routinely deployed as silencing tactics by trolls of many stripes, including Musk himself. The filings also make many mentions of the organization’s focus on trying to reduce online disinformation about topics like Covid vaccines, reproductive healthcare and climate change. X argues that this aspect of the group’s work is driven by ideology, when in reality, it is driven by hard facts. Covid vaccines work, reproductive healthcare is a human right, and climate change is real.

The case against the Center for Countering Digital Hate is all too similar to the spate of legal threats recently brought against members of the Election Integrity Partnership, a research coalition assembled around the 2020 election in the U.S. that included the Stanford Internet Observatory, the German Marshall Fund and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, among others. These research groups were focused on tracking election-related disinformation — including state-run accounts promoting false information about who won the 2020 election — and alerting social media companies. When Twitter was still Twitter and Elon Musk was just a foul-mouthed super user of the site, the company actually did try to reduce demonstrably false information about voting rights and election outcomes. Right-wing politicians and magnates like Musk have long leaned on the argument that this infringes on people’s rights to free speech. But even now, when Musk is at the helm of this rapidly disintegrating but still very influential platform, he can’t seem to get enough. So he’s taking this comparatively tiny research group to court.

Imran Ahmed, who leads the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told the New York Times that Musk’s actions are “a brazen attempt to silence honest criticism and independent research.” They are also undoubtedly taking up the Center’s time and resources that would otherwise be spent doing more research in the public interest. 


Senegalese authorities ordered a nationwide mobile internet shutdown on Monday after officials apprehended and jailed opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and the country’s Interior Ministry moved to dissolve the PASTEF party, which Sonko leads. This latest chapter in the long-running conflict between Sonko and Senegalese President Macky Sall has seen large pro-PASTEF rallies and heavy-handed state responses, including internet restrictions. In this case, officials indicated that the shutdown was ordered “due to the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages in a context of disturbance of public order.” A similar shutdown was imposed last June and turned into a curfew-style system, with people allowed to use the internet during the day but kicked offline in the evening hours.

Don’t like the police? Don’t say so in Jordan, where the parliament is mulling over a draft cybercrime law that covers everything from “content that provokes strife” to regulations reining in Big Tech. The law would make it a crime to post any material online that “undermines national unity, incites or justifies violence or hatred, or disrespects religions,” and it includes special provisions criminalizing speech related to law enforcement officials.

The law would require social media companies with more than 100,000 subscribers (read: Meta) in Jordan to establish offices in the country. Embarking on the well-trodden path of heavyweight countries like India, some — but not all — Jordanian MPs appear eager to require more cooperation between Big Tech and the government. These policies typically force companies into much stricter compliance with local law, lest they put their business or even their own employees at risk. And it can spell trouble for people who use social media to hold the government to account or document police abuse. Since Jordan’s draft law also makes it illegal to publish any material about law enforcement officials “that may offend or harm” the institution, well, we can guess what might happen next. Alongside the Jordan Open Source Association and SMEX, global groups like Access Now, Article 19 and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are publicly opposing the law.

There’s new evidence that the U.S. government has been using spyware built by Israel’s NSO Group, despite the fact that the company was officially blacklisted by the White House in March. Documents reviewed by the New York Times in April showed that U.S. government agents, operating behind a front company called Riva Networks, were using a geolocation tool built by the Israeli surveillance tech giant that would allow agents to track anyone through their mobile device, without their knowledge. White House staff, who said they knew nothing of it before the Times’ story ran, put their best guys on it — they asked the FBI to investigate. But this week, it came to light that the NSO contract was held by….the FBI.

The revelations shouldn’t be surprising — NSO first worked its way into U.S. government contracts in 2019. But they sure do cast a shadow over Biden’s ban on commercial spyware.