A nonprofit organization that tracks online hate speech pledged to keep pushing forward with its goal of holding tech companies accountable, even as the group fends off a lawsuit from the world’s wealthiest man, Elon Musk.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), the U.K.-based watchdog group, found itself in the crosshairs of Musk’s latest offensive move in response to civil society groups that are pushing to keep X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, free of the hate speech and misinformation that has run rampant since Musk took control of the company in October.
CCDH is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization funded by philanthropic trusts and members of the public, according to its website.
Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the CCDH, said the company will “vigorously defend” itself against the lawsuit.
“[Musk is] claiming that he’s a defender of free speech while trying to shut down a nonprofit civil society body. It is pure double speak,” Ahmed said.
Why is X suing?
The complaint, filed last week after the CCDH publicly revealed the company had threatened to take legal action, centers on the CCDH’s reports about the spread of hate speech and misinformation online.
X alleges the organization “unlawfully” scraped data from the platform in violation of the platform’s terms of service, and hurt the company’s revenue after advertisers paused spending on what was Twitter.
Ahmed told The Hill the argument is “so weak” that even those supporting Musk seem confused by it.
For example, long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was named in a CCDH report published in March 2021 about prominent spreaders of anti-vaccine misinformation, posted on X that he would be “happy to join @elonmusk in a libel lawsuit against this sketchy outfit.”
“It’s not a defamation suit,” Ahmed said.
“In the actual complaint that they’ve put forward, they haven’t claimed defamation at all. They’ve claimed contract violation,” he added.
The Hill reached out to the attorney representing X, and Kennedy’s campaign for comment.
The lawsuit is the latest escalation of Musk’s hostile relationship with civil society groups since he bought Twitter for $44 billion in October.
The CCDH was among civil society groups that urged advertisers in November to boycott spends on Twitter over layoffs Musk made that they feared could impede content moderation methods.
The situation continued to heat up in the weeks and months that followed, as Musk rolled back content moderation methods and let previously banned users, including former President Trump, back online.
In addition to the boycott over Musk’s changes, though, the CCDH regularly publishes reports about misinformation across other sites. For example, its 2021 “Disinformation Dozen” report about anti-vaccine content, which is cited in X’s complaint, focused on the spread of the content across Twitter, as well as Youtube and Meta-owned platforms Facebook and Instagram.
Tech companies typically push back on the reports, arguing that only the company has access to their data and dispute the findings, but Ahmed said the group has never seen a lawsuit like the one filed by X. Ahmed called Musk’s behavior “a nakedly authoritarian and antagonistic stance towards independent civil society bodies.”
A second battle in the House
The lawsuit is part of a multi-pronged fight the CCDH is now in the center of. Just days after X filed the lawsuit, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sent a letter to the CCDH looking into any interaction the organization with the federal government and social media companies.
In his letter, Jordan said the organization appeared to have “played a role in this censorship regime by advising the government and social media companies on so-called ‘misinformation.’”
Ahmed said the CCDH retained counsel and will comply with Jordan’s requests, but that the questions Jordan is asking are misguided.
“They keep asking us the same question, ‘Give us all your government contracts,’” he said.
“And we’re like, ‘We don’t have any.’ We don’t want to take money from government, or from tech, or from social media companies. Because how can you criticize governments for failing to regulate and platforms to self regulate If you are owned by them,” Ahmed added.
As part of its plans to defend itself in the case, the group is putting an even larger emphasis on grassroots fundraising. On the website, the group put out a call to ask for donations for its legal fund to “fight back against Elon Musk.”
The CCDH said that as the committee probe and lawsuit play out, it will continue with its work to publish reports about online hate speech and misinformation across platforms.
Even Monday, a week after the lawsuit was filed, the group put out a report about the spread of harmful eating disorder content from artificial intelligence-powered chatbots.
“I think they thought that we were a bunch of children that they could stamp on, but we’re not. We’re a bunch of extremely motivated professionals,” he said.
For Ahmed, that fight is personal.
While working for the British opposition Labour Party during the Brexit debate, his colleague and lawmaker for the Labour MP Jo Cox, a vocal advocate for Britain remaining in the European Union, was fatally shot and stabbed. Thomas Mair was arrested and charged shortly after, and later sentenced to life in prison for the murder, NPR reported.
“My conviction to change things for the better comes from grief. And there’s nothing that he could do that could stop me from continuing my mission,” Ahmed said.