An effigy of Elon Musk is seen on a mobile device with the Twitter logo in this photo illustration on 23 July, 2023 in Warsaw, Poland.
Jaap Arriens | Nurphoto | Getty Images
Imran Ahmed refuses to be intimidated by Elon Musk. And he’s insisting that researchers at his nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate remain equally unafraid.
Earlier this week, the company formerly known as Twitter filed a lawsuit in federal court against the CCDH, after the organization in June published research that Musk didn’t like. The group found a rise in hate speech on Twitter since Musk purchased the company last year, and said X, as it’s now known, fails to take action against paying subscribers who post racist, homophobic, conspiratorial and other inflammatory content.
In an interview with CNBC, Ahmed said the CCDH has no plans to suspend its research into the spread of hateful content and other emerging problems it finds on the social media platform. Rather, Ahmed told staffers in a meeting after he heard about the lawsuit that they should “double down” on probing X.
“I’ve never, ever, ever walked away from a fight,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed, 44, lives in Washington, D.C., though he studied in the U.K. at the University of Cambridge. He founded the CCDH in 2018 after the death of Jo Cox, a U.K. Labour Party colleague and member of parliament, by a white supremist who was reportedly “a loner obsessed with Nazis.”
Lawyers representing X alleged in this week’s lawsuit that the CCDH improperly obtained access to social media analysis tool Brandwatch and also illegally scraped data from Twitter using other methods. The attorneys claimed the CCDH has used “flawed methodologies to advance incorrect, misleading narratives” that have driven away X’s advertisers, damaging its business.
In March, the CCHD published a study showing that since Musk took over Twitter, there’s been a 119% increase in tweets mentioning the grooming narrative, referring to a conspiracy theory that implies LGBTQ+ people are grooming children. The study was based on an analysis of 1.7 million tweets from the beginning of 2022 through February 2023. The CCDH said it obtained the tweets using a data-scraping tool and Twitter’s search function.
X said in its lawsuit that it’s seeking a jury trial, unspecified monetary damages, and wants to block CCDH and any of its collaborators or employees from accessing data provided by X to Brandwatch.
Ahmed declined to comment about the specifics of the case though he noted that X has not yet physically served him or the CCDH with a lawsuit.
He’s accustomed to the criticism.
Prior to the challenges from X, Meta and TikTok took issue with the CCDH’s research methodology after the group released reports alleging those platforms fostered misinformation and content that could harm the mental health of teenagers.
However, neither of those companies went so far as to sue the nonprofit or allege that it acted unlawfully.
The lawsuit from X follows a previous letter sent from another law firm representing the company, accusing the CCDH of false and misleading claims linked to a separate trademark-related law known as the Lanham Act.
Ahmed characterized Musk’s actions toward his organization as those of “a man who is desperately fishing around for ways to blame someone else.”
X did not respond to questions about the lawsuit or when it plans to serve CCDH with it. The company issued a statement to CNBC, reiterating prior comments and accusing the nonprofit of spreading false claims against X to stymie public discourse. Prior to the lawsuit, Musk referred to Ahmed as a “rat” and the nonprofit as “truly evil.”
Brandwatch and its parent company Cision didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Ahmed defended the CCDH against claims that it’s a “censorship organization,” and also shot down allegations in the complaint and from Musk that the group is covertly bankrolled by potential competitors or foreign governments.
“I made clear that we don’t take money from tech companies, social media companies, and we don’t take money from governments,” Ahmed said. “We take money from philanthropic trusts and the public. If people want to donate, they can donate to us here.”
The CCDH has provided evidence to the governments of the U.S. and U.K. on Internet harms, and advocated for the U.K.’s Online Safety Bill, which was designed to make social media companies more responsible for the safety of their users.
When it comes to Musk, Ahmed has a particular point to make: He doesn’t “understand how free speech truly works.”
He’s a “self-proclaimed champion of free speech,” Ahmed said, but he “doesn’t understand the marketplace of ideas.”
Ultimately, Ahmed’s conclusion is that, “Musk is behaving like a child who simply cannot take responsibility for the fact that he pooped in his own pants and it wasn’t someone else that did it for him.”
Earlier this week, three Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Musk and X, accusing the world’s richest person of taking a “hostile stance” toward independent researchers. They said the studies have “raised legitimate and serious questions regarding X’s business practices since Mr. Musk’s acquisition.”
But Musk has his backers on the other side of the aisle.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, sent a letter to the CCDH and Ahmed as part of a broader “censorship investigation.” The letter, which the CCDH confirmed it received on Thursday, said the committee is seeking documents from the nonprofit that show its “interactions” with the federal government, including the Biden administration, and social media companies.
“The Committee on the Judiciary is conducting oversight of how and to what extent the Executive Branch has coerced and colluded with companies and other intermediaries to censor speech,” Jordan wrote. “Certain third parties, including organizations like yours, appear to have played a role in this censorship regime by advising the government and social media companies on so-called ‘misinformation’ and other types of content — sometimes with direct or indirect support or approval from the federal government.”
Ahmed said that in the days since the X lawsuit was made public, the CCDH has received “hundreds of donations” and “so many messages of support” from organizations including Amnesty International, the Anti-Defamation League, Friends of the Earth, and Planned Parenthood.
Other groups that have voiced support for CCDH include LGBTQ advocate GLAAD, the Molly Rose Foundation, the Free Press, Check My Ads and Coalition for Independent Tech Research.
Ahmed said these organizations recognize what’s at stake, especially as Musk shows his increasing willingness to use his wealth and power to inject his ideologies onto a major communications platform.
There are “all these other groups who are all coming out going, no no, our information ecosystem is valuable,” Ahmed said. “We have the right to comment on it, on the private companies who administer significant parts of it.”