On Monday, Elon Musk’s X Corp, formerly known as Twitter, filed a lawsuit against an anti-hate speech group, accusing it of “intentionally and unlawfully” accessing the company’s data and conducting “a scare campaign to drive away advertisers from the X platform.”
The complaint, filed in a California federal court, alleges that research conducted by the advocacy group Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) cost the company “tens of millions of dollars.” The suit alleges that 16 unnamed advertisers either stopped spending on the platform, paused plans to advertise, or decided not to reactivate campaigns following CCDH’s research.
In an interview with TIME, Imran Ahmed, CCDH’s founder and CEO, said that the nonprofit, which has yet to be physically served by X’s legal team, plans to fight the lawsuit, and warned that the lawsuit’s outcome could have an adverse impact on independent researchers.
“It’s an unprecedented and shocking escalation in the war Twitter [X Corp] is waging with transparency,” says Ahmed.
Ahmed also notes other recent moves by Musk to reduce transparency, like requiring third-party developers to pay to access X Corp's API, which had long provided researchers data into how people communicate online. “Now he's suing the voice holding him accountable.”
X Corp. is seeking unspecified damages for breach of contract, violation of the computer fraud and abuse act, intentional interference with contractual relations and inducing breach of contract. Ahmed says it's significant that the company is suing the advocacy group for breach of contract and a loss of revenue, rather than attacking the research itself. “If you look at what they've said, they haven't claimed defamation. They haven't claimed untruth,” he says. “They are suing us for $10 million for losing them advertising.”
The lawsuit alleges that the nonprofit “mischaracterized” data “to make it appear as if a few specific users (often media organizations and high profile individuals) are overwhelming social media platforms with content that CCDH deems harmful.”
CCDH has published several reports covering hate speech on X Corp since Musk bought the platform last October. One report found that X Corp accounts previously banned for publishing hateful content, and then revived under Musk’s “general amnesty” policy, generate millions of dollars in advertising revenue for the platform. Another study published in June found that the company failed to act upon 99% of hate speech posted by Twitter Blue subscribers and reported to the platform.
X Corp has asserted that the platform has seen a reduction in hateful content. “Free expression and platform safety are not at odds,” the company wrote in a July 31 blog post. “We are proving this every day through innovative enforcement policies that have helped reduce hateful content viewed on the platform.”
X Corp did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.
As they work to raise money to fight the lawsuit (CCDH has seen more small donations in the past few days than in all of its history) Ahmed says that it has also seen an outpouring of support from other advocacy groups in recent days, an indication that the fight extends far beyond their organization.
“A lot of other civil society groups understand that this has broader implications. Not just because there are other groups that do research on [X Corp], and they might be in the firing line next, but also, other companies are looking at this and if they think there is the sliver of possibility that you can sue critics for damaging your business, because they just report the truth, we're in huge amounts of trouble,” he says.“These are fundamental aspects of a democratic society. If we cannot hold the wealthiest in our society to account and report on them without fear, then we don't have a democracy.”
Three Congressional representatives, Lori Trahan (D. Mass.), Adam Schiff (D. Calif.), and Sean Casten (D. Ill.), sent a letter to Musk and Linda Yaccarino, the company’s CEO, expressing concerns about the impact on independent research and free speech.
“Independent researchers and advocates, including those at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, regularly study trends of potentially harmful behavior on social media platforms and post articles detailing their findings. This is true of X as well as of its competitors, including Meta, Google, TikTok, and others,” the letter read. “However, under your leadership, X is taking a hostile stance toward those efforts, further contributing to existing concerns about X’s abilities to effectively address the harms that exist on your platform.”
Ahmed says the outcome of the suit could set a precedent for researchers everywhere. “What weighs on me is that I know that if we lose, we don't just lose for us. We lose for a lot of other people too,” he says. “We didn't mean to be put in this position, but we are absolutely up for it.”
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Inside the White House Program to Share America's Secrets
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- Long COVID Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think It Does
- Column: The New Antisemitism
- The 13 Best New Books to Read in March
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Write to Simmone Shah at email@example.com