A software engineer from Berlin is fighting back after X terminated his account because, according to the firm, his investigation into the platform’s functionality was illegal.
Following Elon Musk’s turbulent takeover of the site, Travis Brown’s study featured extensively in reports that cast X, previously Twitter, in a bad light. Brown spent a year working on Twitter’s open source projects before Musk’s arrival. Musk started investigating hate speech and account suspensions on the network after his acquisition, using a software tool he developed in collaboration with the data transparency group Open Knowledge Foundation to gather X data.
Brown stated his intention to regain his account by working with HateAid, a German anti-digital-violence NGO. The organization helped Brown get an injunction and get his account back the first time, but this time X seems to be doubling down and hiring outside legal representation. In an effort to avoid further legal action by Brown, who is appealing the Berlin District Court’s denial of his request for another injunction, that business issued a 36-page letter.
To paraphrase Brown, “X’s actions are an attempt to silence researchers who are monitoring extremism and disinformation on the platform,” which, according to Brown, renders the site “increasingly dangerous.”
“We will not be silenced, though, and will continue to collect and share data, because we all have a right to understand the effects that these platforms have on our world.”
According to Wired, Brown was abruptly fired from X at the start of July. In September, after a court ruling, his account was restored, only to be blocked again. In the same month, the corporation updated its terms of service to include a warning for researchers like Brown, saying, “NOTE: crawling or scraping the Services in any form, for any purpose, without our prior written consent is expressly prohibited.” The phrasing is reminiscent of Musk’s early rejection of ElonJet, a flight monitoring account.
Many news outlets covered Brown’s study as Musk abandoned Twitter’s long-standing rules and reduced the company’s employment. This includes the account of notorious neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, creator of the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer, which Musk unbanned in December. Brown kept tabs on X’s “mass unbanning” at the time, creating a list of reinstated accounts along with their follower counts and dates of ban reversal.
Reports on X’s paid subscriber numbers, which the firm does not publicly divulge, have often used data collected by Brown. About 140,000 people had switched to X’s premium service, which was called Twitter Blue at the time, by the end of the year 2022. By Brown’s count, there were around 890,000 users of X Premium by September 2023. X Premium is Musk’s revamped version of Twitter Blue. White nationalist and Unite the Right rally organizer Richard Spencer is just one of several far-right and extremist personalities who have been shown to use Twitter’s sponsored blue checks, according to research based in part on data collected by Brown.
The dispute between X and Brown is only one example of the firm’s campaign against groups doing research on extremism on the platform. The anti-hate organization Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) is being sued by X because it is accused of destroying the company’s advertising income by reporting on increases in hate speech on the platform when Musk was in charge. The corporation makes similar accusations in the case, alleging that the CCDH obtained the data it used in its study via unethical means.
“It is extremely dangerous if independent research and reporting on social networks can no longer take place,” said Anna-Lena von Hodenberg, CEO of HateAid. “… In the name of all researchers who expose hidden platform activity, we strongly endorse Travis Brown’s cause.