Musk's geopolitics touches Latin America

10 min
Musk's geopolitics touches Latin America

The flag of absolutism of freedom of expression that Elon Musk has waved since he bought Twitter -today X- has finally reached Latin America. On April 8, the owner of X called Alexandre de Moraes, minister of Brazil's Supreme Federal Court, a "brutal dictator" for his measures to suspend social network accounts in Brazil that have disseminated electoral disinformation and incitement to violence.

The comment is part of a flurry of criticism that during the first days of the month was aimed from X against Brazil's institutions and that seeks to expand Musk's "absolutist freedom of expression" philosophy to other parts of the world. On April 3, Michael Shellenberger, an American journalist and activist, published a Brazilian edition of the 'Twitter Files', a sort of journalistic reports based on internal company information to expose Twitter's former moderation practices, and support the slogan of less intervention promoted by Musk.

This version of the Twitter Files featured emails from Rafael Battista, the company's legal director in Brazil, and communications from the public policy team to deal with requests for user information and content removal, as well as calls from authorities to act against electoral disinformation and coordinated operations.

The accounts mentioned in the communications largely belong to profiles that participated in campaigns to delegitimize the last presidential elections in Brazil, which - added to other factors - led to mobilizations in front of military barracks and the insurrection of January 8, 2023, in which public buildings were invaded in Brasília, as reported by Sergio Spagnuolo and Milena Giacomini.

In the publication, Shallenberger singled out Alexandre de Moraes as the leader of a crackdown on freedom of expression in Brazil and criticized the so-called " fake newsbill", an initiative to regulate social networks that has been under discussion for years in that country and which last year provoked belligerent reactions from other technology companies.

With the stage set, on April 6, X's global affairs office announced that the company had been forced to block some popular accounts in Brazil. "The people of Brazil, beyond their political positions, have the right to freedom of expression, due process and transparency," it argued in the release. A few minutes later, Musk himself jumped into the fray, lashing out at De Moraes and suggesting that users in Brazil use VPN services - virtual private networks that simulate an Internet connection from a non-physical location - to circumvent content restrictions in the country.

In the absence of regulation of social networks and in the face of episodes of extremism in Brazil, the Federal Supreme Court, headed by de Moraes, took up the cause of mitigating disinformation campaigns, ordering the suspension of accounts and the removal of content. The measures, in themselves debatable, have earned him the repudiation of sectors close to Jair Bolsonaro, who also called him a dictator during the 2022 presidential campaign.

De Moraes responded to X and Musk's pronouncements by opening an investigation against the company owner for possible obstruction of the administration of justice. He is accused of having initiated a disinformation campaign against the Supreme Federal Court and the Superior Electoral Court. According to the announcement, signed by the minister himself, Musk will be investigated for criminal instrumentalization of X, criminal organization and incitement to crime.

Beyond the responses from one side or the other, the dispute in X serves each side to strengthen its position in the ideological backdrop of the discussion. For journalist Juan Pablo Spinetto, "Musk sells the controversy as a fight against censorship consistent with his spirit of absolutist freedom of expression", although in practice it constitutes the protection of voices that have actually incurred in illegal conduct through their accounts on social networks.

As for De Moraes, his hard line against Internet companies and problematic online speeches earn him the support of anti-Bolsonarist sectors and reinforce his image as a defender of democracy, despite the fact that his crusade includes granting himself powers and acting according to sui generis procedures. As lawyer Pedro Henrique Carneiro points out, in these instances the Court is at once prosecutor, victim and judge.

In the background is also the international political chessboard. During the days of the controversy, Musk spoke in glowing terms of his future meeting with Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, a country where the tycoon reserves his discourse of absolute freedom of expression. Last year, the company was accused of acting in a docile manner by complying with state requests to remove more than 100 accounts of journalists, activists and opponents of the government. These measures were rejected by civil society organizations, which accused Twitter of censorship.

Similarly, in the context of the 2023 Turkish elections, Twitter blocked accounts critical of the government of Recep Tayyib Erdogan, with whom Musk met a few months later to contemplate the opening of a Tesla factory in that country and a possible cooperation between SpaceX - also owned by Musk - and Turkey's aerospace program.

For Emerson Brooking, a researcher at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Lab, Musk has found in Brazil a cause that allows him to articulate his twisted vision of freedom of expression. In his view, this right is not granted to democratic activists, but to people who share his political views.

The controversy with Brazil also coincided with another relevant point in Musk's geopolitical agenda: his meeting with Javier Milei, whom he received last week at the Tesla factory in Texas. After the meeting, Miguel Adorni, spokesman for the Argentine presidency, informed that the president had offered Musk assistance for "the conflict that the social network X maintains in Brazil within the framework of the judicial and political conflict in that country". Although shortly afterwards the Argentine Foreign Minister, Diana Modino, assured that her country would not interfere in Brazil's internal affairs, the scope of Musk's diplomatic relations in the region remains up in the air.

Despite the dispute, this week X's representatives in Brazil backed down. In a letter sent to De Moraes, the company reported that "all orders issued by this Supreme Court and by the Superior Electoral Court will continue to be fully complied with." So far, Musk has not commented on this change in its own doctrine.

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