X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, has filed a lawsuit against a nonprofit that researches hate speech online and accused it of engaging in a campaign to drive away advertisers.
According to the complaint “X Corp V. Center for Countering Digital Hate,” which was filed in California’s Northern District Court, the D.C.-based nonprofit violated the social media platform’s terms of service as well as federal law by scraping data.
“Defendants Center for Countering Digital Hate, Inc. (‘CCDH US’) and Center for Countering Digital Hate Ltd. (‘CCDH UK,’ collectively ‘CCDH’)–activist organizations masquerading as research agencies, funded and supported by unknown organizations, individuals and potentially even foreign governments with ties to legacy media companies—have embarked on a scare campaign to drive away advertisers from the X platform. CCDH has done this by engaging in a series of unlawful acts designed to improperly gain access to protected X Corp. data, needed by CCDH so that it could cherry-pick from the hundreds of millions of posts made each day on X and falsely claim it had statistical support showing the platform is overwhelmed with harmful content,” the complaint alleged.
As NPR reported, CCDH is best known for a 2021 study that found 12 people were behind most of the misleading claims and lies about Covid-19 vaccines on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
“Musk is trying to ‘shoot the messenger’ who highlights the toxic content on his platform rather than deal with the toxic environment he’s created,” CCDH CEO Imran Ahmed said in a statement. “CCDH has no intention of stopping our independent research–Musk will not bully us into silence.”
X Marks The Response
X, which did not respond to an additional request for comment, did post on its official blog on Monday, stating, “On X, people are free to be their true selves. We believe people of all backgrounds and beliefs should have the right to freely express themselves, so long as they do so within the bounds of the law.”
The blog post further alleged that CCDH had “been actively working to assert false and misleading claims encouraging advertisers to pause investment on the platform,” while it noted that X (formerly Twitter) is “a free public service funded largely by advertisers.”
X further said it has innovative enforcement policies that serve to reduce hateful content on the platform and that more than 99.99% of post impressions were “healthy.”
Free Speech Absolutist?
The lawsuit would seem in conflict to X’s claims that everyone should have the right to express themselves freely—a point that hasn’t been lost on many.
“This lawsuit aligns perfectly with the Elon Musk playbook. Despite labeling himself as a ‘free speech absolutist,’ the word ‘free’ comes with a caveat: One can only say positive things about Musk and his properties,” explained Jason Mollica, professorial lecturer and program director in the School of Communication at American University.
“It appears Musk is engaging in an act of intimidation,” added social media analyst Greg Sterling, co-founder of Near Media. “He’s fearful that advertisers will continue to stay away if they perceive the platform to be a bastion of vitriol and hate speech. So he’s seeking to suppress negative research which points that out.”
Will This Impact Studies Of Social Media
This lawsuit may not just be about this one particular study—and its motives could be far more reaching.
“I suspect his (Musk’s) hope is that others in the same position as this watchdog will be less inclined to conduct similar research or publicize the results for fear of being sued,” suggested Sterling.
However, the CCDH hasn’t been the only organization to find hate speech on the rise on X, and to publish its findings.
“The Anti-Defamation League shares regular reports on Antisemitic posts,” said Mollica. “According to their research late in 2022, the platform had gone from taking action on 60% of the tweets it reported to just 30%. Musk has even shared conspiracy theories and far-right content all the while loosening the hate speech limits. Twitter has stopped sharing transparency reports and the site’s API is behind a paywall for researchers and developers.”
Fortunately, however, this isn’t likely “a floodgate opening” moment where other private companies may simply opt to sue researchers and their organizations/groups to silence them.
“In fact, Musk may be doing more harm than good by filing the suit,” Mollica continued, noting that the attempts to call out CCDH may backfire. “He’s posted to Twitter that the CCDH is ‘truly evil’ and claims they spread ‘disinformation and push censorship.'”
That may simply encourage other researchers to take a closer look at X.