1. Home
  2. tech
  3. news
  4. Elon Musk may have a point in his fight against Brazil, but he's not actually helping

Elon Musk may have a point in his fight against Brazil, but he's not actually helping

Hannah Getahun   

Elon Musk may have a point in his fight against Brazil, but he's not actually helping
  • The Brazilian Supreme Court issued an order to ban certain X accounts.
  • Elon Musk said he'd ignore the order and demanded that Brazil uphold free-speech principles.

Elon Musk is wading into a war with Brazil over orders from the country's supreme court to ban certain X accounts that helped spread election misinformation.

While the country deals with a debate about balancing free speech with significant threats to its democracy, Musk's outsize voice — which is emboldening an antidemocratic wing of the far-right — isn't helping, a civil-liberties expert told Business Insider.

Musk posted on Saturday that he'd oppose an order from Alexandre de Moraes, a top judge on Brazil's supreme court, to ban an unknown number of X accounts related to Brazil's far right after an official X account initially said the company would comply.

In response, de Moraes said in a court decision that Musk would be investigated for obstruction, criminal organization, and incitement and called the X chairman's weekend posts a "disinformation campaign," the Associated Press reported. He said Musk would also face a fine of about $20,000 a day for each blocked account reinstated in Brazil, the AP reported.

The judge's actions are part of a wider initiative from the country to combat hate speech and false information, and de Moraes is at the forefront of this crusade.

De Moraes began an investigation in 2019 into what he called digital militias, or groups spreading disinformation online. In 2022, he briefly banned Telegram, saying it was facilitating the spread of false information, and ordered tech companies such as Meta to remove misinformation or face suspension in the country.

De Moraes' work became more relevant after far-right rioters stormed the country's congressional building on January 8, 2023, acting on false claims made by then-President Jair Bolsonaro that the election had been stolen.

De Moraes ordered an investigation into Bolsonaro's role in the attempted coup that uncovered coordinated social-media efforts to undermine Brazil's election systems — which also happens to be a violation of X's own guidelines.

"Suspended accounts on X echoed these efforts and were related to Bolsonaro's political base," Veridiana Alimonti, the associate director of Latin American policy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told BI.

The Brazilian publication Estadão found a few of these accounts ordered to be blocked on X. Names on the list included election-misinformation influencers and at least one Nazi influencer.

Alimonti said Musk's defense of these accounts was "backed by the Brazilian far right" — including by Bolsonaro himself, who pushed baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the country similar to those of former US President Donald Trump.

Musk has previously been cozy with Bolsonaro: After Musk's tirade on Saturday, the former president posted a video of himself praising Musk when the pair met in 2022.

Musk 'undermines' a relevant debate

Alimonti said there were legitimate concerns about de Moraes' actions.

De Moraes has been given extensive discretion about which online accounts to suspend in the name of national security. There is little transparency around his decisions, and while his actions have been crucial to maintaining democratic stability, he faces criticism for an overreach of power, Alimonti told BI in an email.

The country's left argues that false information is eroding Brazilian democracy, pointing to the coup attempt as proof.

The right, including Bolsonaro, has painted De Moraes' actions as draconian.

But Alimonti said Musk's voice wasn't helping to foster nuanced debate.

"Musk's claims in defense of free speech within this dispute undermines, rather than enhances, a qualified debate over ensuring user freedom of expression online and effectively balancing rights in content moderation," Alimonti said.

Like in the US, freedom of expression is enshrined in Brazil's constitution. But the country's protection of free speech isn't absolute, giving the federal government greater discretion to ban certain types of speech — such as hate speech.

Representatives for Musk and Brazil's supreme court didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from BI.

An inconsistent defense of free speech

The decision to fight Brazil's government brazenly departs from Musk's previous stance of complying with government limits to speech. The billionaire refused to speak out against China, India, and Turkey for restrictions on X.

Notably, Musk has had business dealings in these countries.

It highlights a pattern with Musk — the right to unhindered speech becomes a concern when those in his ideological or business circles are involved.

A recent example includes X supporting the lawsuits of two X users who were fired from their jobs because of posts made on the site. One of these lawsuits included a former employee of Block, cofounded by Jack Dorsey, who said they were fired for, among other things, posting anti-trans and ableist slurs on one of their pseudonymous accounts. Musk has previously shared transphobic views on the platform.

But Musk quickly combats speech critical of him and his companies. A recent ruling against the tech billionaire by federal Judge Charles Breyer said Musk's company was using the courts to try to punish the Center for Countering Digital Hate for reporting that hate speech had gone up on X.

"If there is any question about the 'punishing' part, X Corp. filed a similar suit, not before this Court, in November of 2023 against Media Matters, another non-profit media watchdog, for 'reporting on ads from major brands appearing next to neo-Nazi content,'" Breyer wrote in a footnote in the lawsuit.

And it's this type of speech that Musk is going to bat for in Brazil — speech that can have serious implications for the country.

Nina Santos, a digital-democracy researcher at the Brazilian National Institute of Science & Technology, told Wired that the far right was "trying to use Brazil as a laboratory on how to interfere in local politics and local businesses," adding: "An opinion from an American billionaire should not count more than a democratic institution."

Popular Right Now