X Corp., formerly known as Twitter, filed a lawsuit on Monday in federal court, accusing British researchers of unlawfully accessing data and selectively picking posts to show a rise in hate speech on the platform after Elon Musk acquired the company last year.
The suit, against the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate, focused on research the organization published in June. In one report, the CCDH looked at 100 different accounts subscribed to Twitter Blue and found that Twitter failed to act on 99% of hate posted by users. The group also questioned whether Twitter’s algorithm boosts “toxic tweets.”
Other CCDH research indicated that Twitter failed to act on 89% of anti-Jewish hate speech and 97% of anti-Muslim hate speech on the platform.
X is accusing the CCDH of using data that it didn’t legally possess to “falsely claim it had statistical support showing the platform is overwhelmed with harmful content.” The company is seeking a jury trial, unspecified monetary damages, and wants to block CCDH and any of its collaborators or employees from accessing data provided by X to social media listening platform Brandwatch.
The lawsuit follows a July 20 letter sent from X to the CCDH alleging that the organization made “inflammatory, outrageous, and false or misleading assertions about Twitter” and suggested it conspired “to drive advertisers off Twitter by smearing the company and its owner.”
Musk has long presented himself as a free speech advocate, saying in April that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” However, as CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and principal owner of Twitter, Musk’s declarations have been at odds with some of his actions, such as compelling Tesla customers to sign non-disclosure agreements, and suing one of his most vocal critics and suspending his Twitter accounts.
“Elon Musk’s latest legal threat is straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” Imran Ahmed, founder and CEO of the CCDH, said in a statement. “He is now showing he will stop at nothing to silence anyone who criticizes him for his own decisions and actions.”
Ahmed said his organization’s research “shows that hate and disinformation is spreading like wildfire on the platform under Musk’s ownership and this lawsuit is a direct attempt to silence those efforts.”
X has also come under fire recently for decisions regarding controversial accounts. For example, the company recently reinstated a right-wing account that had posted child sex abuse materials. It also reinstated the account of Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, who had been suspended from the platform after sharing antisemitic comments and Nazi symbols.
The lawsuit on Monday in Northern California joins a flurry of litigious actions and threats from Twitter and Musk in recent months.
In May, the company sent a letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella alleging that the software company abused its access to Twitter data and used it “for unauthorized uses and purposes.” In July, Twitter threatened to sue Meta over its new Threads app, alleging “systematic, willful, and unlawful misappropriation of Twitter’s trade secrets and other intellectual property.”
More recently, Twitter filed a data-scraping lawsuit in Dallas, seeking more than $1 million in damages over “unlawfully scraping data associated with Texas residents,” according to the filing. It also sued Israel-based Bright Data over alleged unauthorized scraping and selling of content and user data pulled from the platform. Bright Data offers non-government, nonprofit, and academic institutions free access to data to understand and combat online harms.
Data scraping is generally legal in the U.S. when it involves publicly accessible data, according to a ruling in 2022 by the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals, which capped off a lengthy legal battle by LinkedIn concerning the practice.
Read the full complaint here:
— CNBC’s Lora Kolodny contributed reporting