Twitter sues Brit non-profit, claims hate-speech reports scared off advertisers

Are we out of touch? No, it's the campaigners who are wrong

Updated Twitter, lately known as X Corp, is suing the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) for allegedly harming its advertising business by documenting vitriol on the social network.

The lawsuit [PDF] was filed on Monday in federal court in San Francisco. It alleges CCDH – a UK-based non-profit – and its US-based office in Washington DC frightened off Twitter's advertisers by putting out "misleading" reports highlighting hate-filled tweets. The center also violated Twitter's terms of service by scraping data, and that it is funded by X's competitors, it is claimed.

Here are the opening allegations in the suit:

Center for Countering Digital Hate, Inc, and Center for Countering Digital Hate Ltd – activist organizations masquerading as research agencies, funded and supported by unknown organizations, individuals and potentially even foreign governments with ties to legacy media companies – have embarked on a scare campaign to drive away advertisers from the X platform.

CCDH has done this by engaging in a series of unlawful acts designed to improperly gain access to protected X Corp data, needed by CCDH so that it could cherry-pick from the hundreds of millions of posts made each day on X and falsely claim it had statistical support showing the platform is overwhelmed with harmful content.

X claims the center obtained information from Brandwatch, a X Corp data partner, without authorization, that CCDH interfered with X Corp's commercial relationship with Brandwatch, and that CCDH's data gathering constitutes a breach of contract.

The complaint states X Corp is aware of numerous large companies that have either paused regular advertising or suspended planned advertising on the basis of CCDH reporting. It does not identify any supposed competitor that is apparently funding CCDH, rather X Corp intends to supply those names if any such parties exist and can be identified through discovery.

In a letter sent to CCDH prior to the lawsuit, X Corp attorney Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP warned CCDH CEO Imran Ahmed that a lawsuit may be forthcoming. The letter contends CCDH's claims about hate speech on Musk's X biz are "false, misleading, or both, and they are not supported by anything that could credibly be called research."


Spiro also claimed, without citing specifics, "we have reason to believe that your organization’s operations – and thus its campaign to drive advertisers off Twitter by smearing the company and its owner – are supported by funding from X Corp’s commercial competitors, as well as government entities and their affiliates."

CCDH published a response to Spiro's "ridiculous letter," penned by CCDH attorney Roberta Kaplan, of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP.

"Tellingly, after CCDH published this article, Twitter did not spend its time and resources addressing the hate and disinformation that CCDH had identified, despite Twitter’s purported commitment to addressing hate speech on its platform," wrote Kaplan.

"But your July 20 letter doesn’t stop there," Kaplan continues. "You go on to state that there is 'no doubt that CCDH intends to harm Twitter's business' and warn that you are 'investigating' whether CCDH has violated Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act. That threat is bogus and you know it. None of the examples cited in your letter constitutes the kind of advertisement or commercial speech that would trigger the Lanham Act."

Kaplan concludes by saying CCDH is prepared to fight.

"If your clients do file suit, please be advised that CCDH intends to seek immediate discovery regarding hate speech and misinformation on the Twitter platform; Twitter’s policies and practices relating to these issues; and Twitter’s advertising revenue," she said.

"In that event, a court will determine for itself the truth of the statements in our client’s report in accordance with the time-tested rules of civil procedure and evidence."

CCDH founder and boss Ahmed said in a statement today, "Elon Musk’s latest legal move is straight out of the authoritarian playbook – he is now showing he will stop at nothing to silence anyone who criticizes him for his own decisions and actions. The Center for Countering Digital Hate’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.

"People don’t want to see or be associated with hate, antisemitism, and the dangerous content that we all see proliferating on X. Musk is trying to 'shoot the messenger' who highlights the toxic content on his platform rather than deal with the toxic environment he’s created. CCDH has no intention of stopping our independent research – Musk will not bully us into silence."

The social media network was purchased by billionaire Elon Musk on October 27 last year and the following month, a coalition of more than 60 civil society and advocacy groups wrote an open letter [PDF] to the site's top 20 advertisers urging them to stop buying ads on the platform.

"Within 24 hours of Musk taking ownership, the platform was inundated with hate and disinformation," the letter claimed. "Not only are extremists celebrating Musk's takeover of Twitter, they are seeing it as a new opportunity to post the most abusive, harassing, and racist language and imagery.

"This includes clear threats of violence against people with whom they disagree. Without deliberate efforts by Twitter to address this type of abuse and hate, your brands will be actively supporting accelerating extremism."

Musk at the time complained, "Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists. Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America."

By the end of November, Media Matters, a non-profit media watchdog group that was not among the letter's signatories, blamed the SpaceX mogul for making Twitter inhospitable to advertising. "In less than a month, Elon Musk has driven away half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers," the group claimed, putting the estimated loss at $2 billion.

Under Musk's ownership, X Corp/Twitter advertising revenue has apparently plummeted. According to the New York Times, revenue during the month of April and the first week of May was $88 million, which is down 59 percent from the same period a year earlier. The report cited concern among Twitter ad sales staff that "advertisers may be spooked by a rise in hate speech and pornography on the social network," as well as the increase in gambling and marijuana ads. ®

Updated to add on March 25, 2024

A judge in San Francisco has thrown out X's lawsuit against the CCDH. The Musk-run biz may try to appeal.

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