X’s Lawsuits as a Means to Avoid Accountability

X's Lawsuits as a Means to Avoid Accountability

Twitter’s Lawsuit Against Advocacy Groups Shines a Light on Data Access and Accountability

Twitter, now referred to as X, recently made headlines when it filed a lawsuit against the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and the European Climate Foundation. The lawsuit alleges that both organizations misused Twitter data, leading to the loss of advertising revenue for the platform. While Twitter did not respond to requests for comment, Imran Ahmed, CEO of CCDH, views the lawsuit as an attempt to stifle efforts to combat hate speech and disinformation on the platform.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Meta have been taking steps to limit access to their data by researchers and civil society organizations. This move is seen as concerning by experts who believe that without access to this data, it becomes difficult to understand the extent of problems like hate speech and disinformation and work towards finding solutions. Liz Woolery, digital policy lead at PEN America, expresses concerns about the restricted access, saying it hampers efforts to hold social media platforms accountable.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has blocked researchers from New York University’s Ad Observatory from collecting data on political ads and Covid-19 misinformation. Twitter has also faced scrutiny, as it sued Israeli data collection firm Bright Data for scraping its site. These actions, along with Twitter’s decision to charge a hefty fee for API access, have limited the ability of researchers and academics to study important issues like disinformation and hate speech. With restricted access, researchers and advocates may struggle to gather the necessary evidence to push for change.

Social media platforms have reasons to be apprehensive about researchers and advocates delving into their content and exposing their shortcomings. Advocacy organizations have long used instances of harmful content on social platforms to pressure advertisers into withdrawing their support, leading companies to address problems and revise policies. The impact can be tremendous, as seen in 2020 when Facebook faced major advertisers pulling out due to concerns over its moderating practices. Musk’s takeover of Twitter brought controversy as he fired staff members responsible for fighting hate speech and misinformation and reinstated previously banned accounts. A study by multiple universities found a significant increase in hate speech after Musk took control. Consequently, the platform experienced a substantial reduction in advertising revenue as major brands distanced themselves. Musk expressed frustration, accusing activist groups of attempting to suppress free speech.

The lawsuit against CCDH not only affects research organizations but also highlights the challenges facing advocates trying to access social listening platforms. Talkwalker, a third-party social listening company, declined to take on CyberWell, a nonprofit tracking anti-Semitism, as a client due to the nature of their work. It seems that existing social listening tools are being reserved for advertisers and paid researchers, with nonprofits being blocked from accessing these resources. While CCDH’s research is based on data access that X claims is unauthorized, the nonprofit argues that X is merely attempting to deflect from its own platform’s problems.

Third-party social listening tools heavily rely on Twitter’s data. Instagram has shut down its API, and conversations on Meta’s platforms are less public. Losing access to Twitter’s data would prove detrimental to these companies and their operations. While guidelines restricting the use of data for hate speech and advocacy research have not been seen, guidelines about sharing data with government agencies without permission exist. Furthermore, X’s lawsuit against CCDH raises concerns about the funding of advocacy organizations and the potential chilling effect on hate speech and disinformation research. The threat of costly legal action may deter organizations from engaging in such work for fear of reputational and financial damage.

Sasha Havlicek, CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), experienced aggressive online harassment after publishing a report on increased anti-Semitism following Musk’s takeover of Twitter. In a worrisome turn of events, Musk worked with right-wing journalists to release the “Twitter Files,” which contained personal information of disinformation researchers and led to ongoing harassment. Havlicek questions who the real censor is.

Despite the challenges, experts hope that the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) will provide a roadmap for other countries to mandate data access for researchers from large social platforms. The hope is that the data transparency regime under the DSA can be effectively utilized to promote progress in addressing issues like hate speech and disinformation.

In conclusion, Twitter’s lawsuit against CCDH and the restrictions on data access for researchers and advocates have far-reaching implications. It raises concerns about accountability, potential censorship, and limited opportunities for addressing critical issues like hate speech and disinformation. While ongoing legal battles and restricted access pose challenges, experts remain hopeful that frameworks like the DSA can pave the way for a more transparent and accountable social media landscape.