Judge dismisses lawsuit by Musk's X against nonprofit researchers tracking hate speech on platform

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by Elon Musk’s X Corp. against the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has documented the increase in hate speech on the site since it was purchased by the Tesla owner

Barbara Ortutay,David Klepper
Monday 25 March 2024 18:08 GMT

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by Elon Musk's X Corp. against the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has documented the increase in hate speech on the site since it was acquired by the Tesla owner.

X, formerly known as Twitter, had argued the center’s researchers violated the site’s terms of service by improperly compiling public tweets, and that its subsequent reports on the rise of hate speech cost X millions of dollars when advertisers fled.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer dismissed the suit, writing in his order that it was “unabashedly and vociferously about one thing" — punishing the nonprofit for its speech.

X had alleged that the nonprofit “scraped” its site for data, which is against its terms of service. But the judge found that X failed to “allege losses based on technological harms” — that is, the company didn't show how the scraping led to financial losses for X.

X had sought millions of dollars in damages, arguing that the nonprofit’s reports led to the exodus of advertisers and the loss of ad revenue.

But the judge agreed with CCDH’s argument saying X cannot seek damages for the independent acts of third parties based on CCDH’s reports, or its “speech.”

The center is a nonprofit with offices in the U.S. and United Kingdom. It regularly publishes reports on hate speech, extremism or harmful behavior on social media platforms like X, TikTok or Facebook. The organization has published several reports critical of Musk’s leadership, detailing a rise in anti-LGBTQ hate speech as well as climate misinformation since his purchase.

In a statement posted to X, the social media platform said it “disagrees with the court’s decision and plans to appeal.”

Imran Ahmed, the center’s founder and CEO, said the lawsuit amounted to a “hypocritical campaign of harassment” by a billionaire who talks about protecting free speech but who then uses his wealth to try to silence his critics. He said the lawsuit shows the need for a federal law requiring tech companies to release more information about their operations, so that the public can understand how these powerful platforms are shaping society.

“We hope this landmark ruling will embolden public-interest researchers everywhere to continue, and even intensify, their vital work of holding social media companies accountable for the hate and disinformation they host and the harm they cause,” said Ahmed.

Roberta Kaplan, the center’s attorney, said the dismissal of X’s suit shows “even the wealthiest man cannot bend the rule of law to his will.”

“We are living in an age of bullies, and it’s social media that gives them the power that they have today,” Kaplan said in an email to reporters. “It takes great courage to stand up to these bullies; it takes an organization like the Center for Countering Digital Hate. We are proud and honored to represent CCDH.”

The center is not the only group that has pointed to the rise of hateful material on X since Musk’s purchase in October 2022. Last November, several big advertisers including IBM, NBCUniversal and its parent company Comcast, said that they stopped advertising on X after a report from the liberal advocacy group Media Matters said their ads were appearing alongside material praising Nazis. It was yet another setback as X tries to win back big brands and their ad dollars, X’s main source of revenue. X has also sued Media Matters.

Later that month, Musk went on an expletive-ridden rant in response to advertisers that halted spending on X in response to antisemitic and other hateful material, saying they are are engaging in “blackmail” and, using a profanity, essentially told them to go away.

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