Elon Musk challenges Brazilian judge over order to block X accounts

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Elon Musk said Sunday that X would defy an order by Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes to block some accounts amid a growing confrontation between the social media company and the country’s judiciary over free speech and misinformation.

His stance quickly prompted a response from Moraes, who on Sunday evening ordered federal authorities to investigate Musk as part of an ongoing probe over what he alleges is the use of social media to undermine Brazil’s democracy. Moraes also announced a separate inquiry into the entrepreneur over potential obstruction of justice.

“Social media networks are not a lawless land,” Moraes wrote in his order, which accused Musk of waging a “disinformation campaign” against the nation’s top court.

Musk didn’t immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment. When reached by The Post on Monday, a spokesperson for X said “Busy now, please check back later.”

Moraes has repeatedly cited disinformation as a singular threat to democracy — particularly after last year, when the false claims of electoral fraud made on social media fueled a siege of Brazilian government buildings by radical backers of far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro. As a result, Moraes, who also heads Brazil’s top election court, has spearheaded a crackdown on misinformation, hate speech and incitement in Latin America’s largest nation.

Over the past five years, Moraes has led ongoing probes — including the 2019 “Investigation Fake News” and the more recent Inquiry 4874, or “Investigation of Digital Militias,” which looks into networks that allegedly spread “anti-democratic” misinformation. Musk is now among those being investigated under Inquiry 4874.

Also caught in the dragnet are influencers and politicians on the political right who call Moraes’s actions partisan and a curb on freedom of expression. Moraes’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday evening.

As part of the investigations, Moraes has ordered social media platforms, including X, to block dozens of accounts of politicians, commentators and influencers for allegedly trafficking in lies, hate, incitement and other “anti-democratic” acts, The Post previously reported.

But Morae’s efforts to quash misinformation — which include sentencing a sitting congressman to nearly nine years in prison for threatening the court and jailing alleged offenders without trials — have proven polarizing within Brazil, The Post reported. Where some see a powerful watchdog safeguarding democracy, others have accused Moraes of conducting a “witch hunt,” as Guilherme Cunha Pereira, owner of the right-wing newspaper Gazeta do Povo, put it.

On Saturday, X’s global government affairs team said the company had been “forced” by the court to block more accounts in Brazil, claiming that “such orders are not in accordance with the Marco Civil da Internet or the Brazilian Federal Constitution,” it said, referring to the Brazilian law that regulates internet activities.

According to court records, the blocked accounts are accused of “spreading anti-democratic ideas that undermine the Brazilian democratic state.” Among them are at least nine far-right businessmen, donors, bloggers and former politicians allied with Bolsonaro, including Allan dos Santos, referred to as “the fake-news kingpin of Brazil” by the Columbia Journalism Review, and Luciano Hang, the billionaire founder of a department store chain and Bolsonaro’s “most passionate booster in the business community,” according to Bloomberg.

Santos and Hang did not immediately respond to The Post’s requests for comment on Monday.

Shortly after X’s global government affairs team announced the additional requests for blockages on Saturday, Musk defied Moraes’s order, writing on X that the platform was “lifting all restrictions.”

“This judge has applied massive fines, threatened to arrest our employees and cut off access to X in Brazil,” Musk wrote on X, referring to Moraes. “As a result, we will probably lose all revenue on Brazil and have to shut down our office there.”

Musk encouraged users in Brazil over the weekend to use a virtual private network (VPN) app for continued access to the social media platform and called the court’s demands the “most draconian” of any country. His defiance was celebrated by right-wing political leaders in Brazil, who cheered Musk for taking on Moraes.

Musk had “more courage to defend democracy” than the Brazilian Senate, wrote congressman Carlos Jordy, an opposition leader under investigation over the attacks on government buildings. Nikolas Ferreira, another Bolsonaro ally who has previously had his account barred, called Musk “unstoppable.”

Moraes, in his order, decried Musk’s campaign as “an abuse of economic power” and said it amounted to “blatant obstruction of Brazilian justice” and an affront to the country’s sovereignty. If Musk and X do not comply with the court’s mandated account blocking, Moraes warned, the company would face a fine of about $20,000 a day for every account it reactivates.

Other Brazilian government officials spoke in support of Moraes’s order and his movement to regulate social media platforms: “We cannot live in a society in which billionaires domiciled abroad have control of social networks and put themselves in a position to violate the rule of law by failing to comply with court orders and threatening our authorities. Social peace is non-negotiable,” Brazil’s attorney general Jorge Messias wrote on X.

Meanwhile, Paulo Pimenta, the country’s secretary of social communications, wrote on X that no “business model’ [can] be above the federal Constitution.”

X’s content-moderation apparatus has been significantly weakened since Musk took over the platform in October 2022, firing or accepting resignations of three-fourths of the company’s employees. In some instances, Musk has promoted far-right conspiracy theories that have been debunked by news organizations.

Brazil, the fourth-largest market for X with nearly 20 million users, has struggled to contain the rapid rise of misinformation that has fueled violence.

In the lead-up to Brazil’s presidential election in October 2022, misinformation flooded social media platforms, The Post reported, with calls to “Stop the Steal” and for a military coup should far-right Bolsonaro lose the election. In January 2023, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters, inflamed by rhetoric and clinging to unfounded claims of fraud, laid siege to the country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential office, days after the inauguration of leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In the aftermath of the incident — scenes of which evoked the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — the new administration promised steps to tackle far-right misinformation.

Yazmin Curzi, a law professor at FGV Direito Rio, said in an email that the country’s laws enable the suspension of content and accounts when there is a well-founded fear of irreparable harm. Brazil’s “Civil Rights Framework for the Internet,” which sets guidelines for online activities, holds provisions for curbing the spread of disinformation — for instance, allowing authorities to make unlawful content generated by third parties unavailable and obtain evidence in legal proceedings.

Freedom of speech, though constitutionally protected in Brazil, is not “above other rights,” Curzi said.

“There seems to be a difficulty for Musk to understand that absolute freedom of speech, as provided for in the United States, is not the general regime for all countries,” Curzi said.

Ana Vanessa Herrero, Anthony Faiola, Samantha Schmidt and Marina Dias contributed to this report.

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