When we held up a mirror to Elon Musk’s Twitter/X he tried to sue us into silence

It started with childish name-calling on Twitter two weeks ago, when Elon Musk called my organisation “evil” and me personally a “rat”. It has since escalated to a lawsuit filed against the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which I founded and run, in a California court last week.

The CCDH exists to research online hate and disinformation, and hold social media companies accountable for the erosion of human rights and civil liberties. Our mission is to stem the tide of racism, antisemitism, harms to children, climate denial, anti-LGBTQ+ hate, health misinformation and many other dangers to society.

Last week, we became the target of an aggressive and cynical intimidation campaign by Musk, the world’s richest person and owner of X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. Musk is singling us out because our research has exposed his failings – the suit is designed to silence critics of X Corp/Twitter. But attacking CCDH will not remove the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and disinformation superspreaders he has allowed back. Only Musk can undo his own errors.

The CCDH has been at the forefront of reporting on the hate proliferating on X/Twitter since Musk completed his takeover in late October 2022.

Our reporting has shown that, under his watch, the number of tweets containing slurs has risen by up to 202%; that tweets linking LGBTQ+ people to “child grooming” have more than doubled; demonstrated that climate denial content and accounts are surging; and revealed Twitter’s failure to act on hate posted by Twitter Blue subscribers. Members of Twitter’s own trust and safety council have resigned, citing CCDH findings, and our research has been widely reported by news outlets around the world.

CCDH holds up a mirror to social media platforms and asks them to consider whether or not they like the reflection they see in it. We are proud of our record of investigating and raising the alarm whenever and wherever we discover the proliferation of serious harms on Twitter/X, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Google, YouTube and other platforms.

Musk didn’t like what he saw in the mirror. But rather than take responsibility and admit the problem, he is trying to sue the mirror.

There is a great irony in attempts by this self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” – to shut down honest debate and fair, research-backed criticism with legal threats.

This episode has highlighted another, extremely grave, problem. A tiny coterie of social media companies hold immense, unchecked and unaccountable power over the digital world, which is now inextricably intertwined with the real world. Not only does Musk have the ability to make drastic and sudden changes to the platform with little regard for the potentially disastrous consequences for the safety of millions of users – he is also wielding absolute power to restrict the questions that the public, advertisers and our democratically elected representatives are allowed to ask of him.

This was noted by three US legislators on Capitol Hill last week, who wrote an excoriating letter to Musk condemning X’s “hostile stance” towards independent research efforts, and for “uniquely resisting” researchers’ efforts to hold social media platforms accountable. Representatives Lori Trahan, Adam B Schiff and Sean Casten also pressed him for clarity around X’s decision to drastically restrict data access for this kind of research, reiterating a request that has gone unanswered by the company since March 2023. In the UK, Lucy Powell, the shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary, noted that “we desperately need the online safety bill to put rules in place, so powerful platforms don’t act on the whims of one man”. Powell and others are spot on in this assessment. Tech executives operate with impunity because there are no rules keeping them in check. Until the world’s governments pass legislation built around the principles of safety by product design, transparency, accountability and responsibility, we will be forced to live with the negative consequences of tech’s failures – with no recourse or democratic oversight.

For now, my organisation is resolved to stand up against this Silicon Valley bully. We stand by our fact-based research, our demands for accountability, and our right to criticise the world’s richest person.

This fight is bigger than CCDH – it is a line-in-the-sand moment. If we allow ourselves to be strongarmed by Musk and X, it will give the green light to every other social media behemoth to do the same to anyone who dares to speak truth to power.

It would also send a message to Big Oil, Big Tobacco and further afield, that reporting or research on businesses that they claim interfere with their ability to profit can be challenged through the courts. Without transparency and accountability for billionaires or corporations, our democracy would be severely weakened.

We have been humbled and emboldened by the outpouring of support so far, both from our colleagues in civil society and from members of the public who believe, like us, that if we allow billionaires to bully their way out of accountability, the damage to our democracy will be devastating. This battle is not ours alone – it must be a collective effort by all those who believe in standing up to the powerful to establish a free and safe internet.

Title: When we held up a mirror to Elon Musk’s Twitter/X he tried to sue us into silence
URL: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/aug/06/when-we-held-up-a-mirror-to-elon-musks-twitterx-he-tried-to-sue-us-into-silence
Source: the Guardian
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Date: August 6, 2023 at 09:33AM
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