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Musk feuds with Brazil's top judge over X

April 10, 2024

Tech billionaire Elon Musk has accused Brazil's Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes of censoring X, his social media platform.

Elon Musk is seen beside a large 'X' logo
Elon Musk has accused Justice Alexandre de Moraes of censoring XImage: Alain Jocard/AFP [M]

Elon Musk has lambasted Alexandre de Moraes, one of the 10 judges on Brazil's Supreme Court, for ordering X to block several accounts, including that of a blogger and two members of Congress. For a while now, Brazil's Constitutional Court has been clamping down on so-called digital militias accused of spreading disinformation and vitriol online. 

Musk, who owns X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, took aim at Moraes saying "this aggressive censorship appears to violate the law & will of the people of Brazil."

Musk followed up his post with an even stronger message: "This judge has brazenly and repeatedly betrayed the constitution and people of Brazil. He should resign or be impeached. Shame @Alexandre, shame."

Musk also said he would defy the Constitutional Court order to block users and reactive the accounts.

Musk under investigation by federal police

Defiantly, Musk announced X would be "lifting all restrictions. This judge has applied massive fines, threatened to arrest our employees and cut off access to X in Brazil. As a result, we will probably lose all revenue in Brazil and have to shut down our office there. But principles matter more than profit."

Alexandre de Moraes is seen wearing a robe
Alexandre de Moraes' actions have drawn both praise and scornImage: EVARISTO SA/AFP

Moraes, in turn, reacted by ordering federal police to launch an investigation into Musk for obstruction of justice and incitement to commit crimes. He said Musk was now also being investigated as part of the broader probe into the so-called anti-democratic digital militias and their financing.

Bolsonaro calls on supporters to 'take to the streets for freedom'

This Musk-Moraes confrontation has further deepened the political polarization in Brazil. While The New York Times has celebrated Moraes as a defender of democracy, Brazil's former right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro has lauded Musk as a "legend of freedom."

Bolsonaro has sought to capitalize on the power struggle and further his own agenda, calling on his supporters to "take to the streets for freedom" on April 21 in Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana neighborhood.

Jair Bolsonaro (left) und Elon Musk are seen shaking hands
Jair Bolsonaro (left) met with Elon Musk in 2022 to discuss connectivity issues and Amazon rainforest projectsImage: Cleverson Oliveira/AP Photo/picture alliance

Bolsonaro's son, Eduardo, meanwhile, who holds a seat in Brazilian parliament, said he wants to convene an expert hearing on the "Twitter files and censorship in Brazil" in the foreign relations committee.

What are the Twitter files?

The "Twitter files" refer to a number of internal Twitter documents published on X between December 2022 and March 2023 after Musk acquired the platform. Musk handed the files over to a select number of journalists and writers, including US author Michael Shellenberger.

Shellenberger, who disagrees with many of the accepted findings when it comes to climate science, regards himself as a "libertarian" activist. He holds controversial views and has been criticized numerous times for publishing inaccurate environmental data.

He recently claimed on X that at "any moment, Brazil's Supreme Court could shut off all access to X/Twitter for the people of Brazil."

He added that the South American country was on the "brink of dictatorship at the hands of a totalitarian Supreme Court Justice named Alexandre de Moraes."

Moraes accused of 'censorship'

Shellenberger has accused Brazil's Supreme Court of several legal offenses, saying Moraes had ordered X to hand over users' personal data because they had published hashtags Moraes "did not like."

He said Moraes had requested access to the social network's internal data in breach of X guidelines. He also said Moraes had "censored on his own initiative and without any respect for due process" posts on the platform made by members of Brazilian Congress, and used the social network to go after Bolsonaro supporters .

Does Elon Musk want to make X the new TikTok?

Yet Brazilian lawyer Fernando Boscardin, who teaches at the University of Miami School of Law, disagrees. He said Shellenberger is not genuinely concerned about freedom of expression but wants to "prevent the regulation of social media platforms akin to the European model."

Fake news law in the pipeline

Media outlets have reported that the Brazilian Congress is poised to adopt a law to combat fake news. The first draft dates back to 2020 but was withdrawn several times due to pushback from tech companies and right-wing lawmakers, most recently in May 2023.

Due to the delay, Brazil's Supreme Electoral Court passed several resolutions earlier this year for the upcoming municipal elections on October 6. They stipulate that electoral courts must have "efficient instruments to combat misleading party advertising, hate speech, anti-democratic statements and the use of artificial intelligence."

Misinformation experts interviewed by Brazilian daily O Globo told the outlet they thought Musk's accusations against the Brazilian judiciary went too far.

"Musk would have to ask a court to clarify whether the constitution has been violated," said Yasmin Curzi, a lawyer and professor at Fundacao Getulio Vargas, a Rio de Janeiro university.

Curzi added that Musk's threat to "defy court orders is a violation of national sovereignty."

This article was originally written in German.