20240409 elon musk
In a new twist, Elon Musk has got into a ‘free speech’ feud with a Brazilian judge Image Credit: Reuters

As he has done time and again, Elon Musk has stirred up yet another storm, this time in Brazil.

Over the weekend, X’s billionaire owner pledged to disobey legal orders in Latin America’s largest country amid a dispute with its Supreme Court, which has been cracking down on social-media accounts spreading misinformation and hate speech. The decisions, Musk said, forced X to block users in Brazil including “sitting members of the Parliament and major journalists” under the threat of massive fines if it failed to comply with the order.

Musk vowed to reinstate the accounts, even if the move eventually means shutting down X in the country altogether, and focused his attacks on Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who has been leading several high-profile investigations and is considered by some to be the country’s most powerful person. In a cascade of tweets, Musk called Judge de Moraes everything from a “brutal dictator” to a “shame” and “Brazil’s Darth Vader.”

“This judge has brazenly and repeatedly betrayed the constitution and people of Brazil,” he posted. “He should resign or be impeached.”

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You don’t need to be an expert on the famously intricate Brazilian legal system to know that bragging publicly about defying court rulings isn’t a great way to advance any cause in any nation where the rule of law prevails. If the company felt Justice de Moraes was guilty of judicial overreach, it could continue fighting the case in courts.

Instead, Musk sells the controversy as a fight against censorship consistent with his “free speech absolutist” ethos.

Brazil’s institutions were put to the test during the Jair Bolsonaro’s rule between 2019 and 2022. The Supreme Court acted to defend the system. Indeed, you could argue that it was the key bulwark against greater political misadventure.

Are calls to overthrow a democratically elected government protected by free speech? It may be the case in the US under the first amendment, but in other developed countries such speech can well be considered sedition. Should questioning the veracity of an election without any proof of wrongdoing be fair game?

Legend of freedom

The reality is that, suffering personal harassment at times, the judges helped the country navigate a period of extreme pressure. Justice de Moraes is also leading an investigation into alleged attempts by Bolsonaro and his allies to undertake a military coup after his 2022 election defeat. The former president, who hosted Musk in Brazil in 2022 and called him a “legend of freedom,” may well end up in jail after already being barred from running for office again until 2030.

Regardless of Musk’s motivations, the political impact of his actions in Brazil has been immediate and explosive: Those worried about the “tyranny” of the judges (i.e., the Bolsonaro side), greeted his move as if he was saving the country from oppression. Those on the opposite aisle (i.e., the government) see an unacceptable attack on Brazil’s sovereignty and proof that social media needs to be heavily regulated.

And one immediate upshot is that attempts to build a modern legal framework for tech platforms will continue to be postponed in a congress that now has another reason to disagree over a fiendishly complex topic.

That’s why Musk was wrong to pick this fight: speaking lightly about a country he knows only superficially and attacking a judge whose surname he can’t even pronounce properly have all been a disservice to Brazil that will only amplify polarisation and political discord. If Brazil is not for beginners, Brazilian politics is only for the truly gifted. (Incidentally, would Musk dare to bash a US Supreme Court judge using the same tone he used against Justice de Moraes knowing that he won’t be protected by being in a different jurisdiction?)

So, what’s next? Justice de Moraes seemed to have taken notice of the controversy by announcing a criminal investigation into Musk for starting a “disinformation campaign” that could be considered obstruction of justice. Launched only hours after Musk’s comments, the probe proves how little patience this court has for dissent, with Chief Justice Luís Barroso also issuing a reminder on Monday that judicial decisions can be appealed but not deliberately disobeyed. Imagine if courts acted this fast and pre-emptively in every case!

The big test will come if X effectively shuts down, a possibility that Brazil’s telecommunications agency has reportedly been discussing with local operators. Justice de Moraes would be wise to avoid this trap because it would only affirm Musk’s points about censorship and damage the country’s image. Likewise, Musk should have an incentive to keep the platform working. As much as an X shutdown might be salubrious for the national psyche — and I speak as a confirmed X-aholic — I suspect we will see a cold war with some performative outbursts and a tacit agreement to avoid the platform’s closure.

In the meantime, if I were Musk, I’d postpone any near-term plans for a visit to Brazil. — Bloomberg

Juan Pablo Spinetto writes on economic affairs and politics