Is There a Global Assault on Free Speech? Latest Twitter Files Suggest So

April 4th, 2024 5:17 PM

A new installment of the Twitter Files has revealed a government campaign in Brazil to coordinate political censorship with Big Tech.

Journalist Michael Shellenberger deplored the “sweeping crackdown on free speech” occurring in Brazil, particularly against supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro. The Twitter Files identify Alexandre de Moraes, head of Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE) and member of its Supreme Court (STF), as the alleged prime culprit in a congressional and judicial effort to crush political opponents’ speech, Shellenberger reported

“De Moraes has thrown people in jail without trial for things they posted on social media,” Shellenberger revealed on the Twitter Files, also co-written by Brazilian journalists Eli Vieira and David Agape. “He has demanded the removal of users from social media platforms. And he has required the censorship of specific posts, without giving users any right of appeal or even the right to see the evidence presented against them.”

According to Shellenberger, the Brazilian government had requested users’ data from major social media companies including Google, Facebook, Uber, WhatsApp and Instagram. He noted that these companies provided registration data and phone numbers without court orders and legal justification for such requests. Twitter’s Brazilian legal counsel Rafael Batista consistently tried to fight court orders for private information, Shellenberger explained. Unfortunately, compliance from other tech companies, particularly Google, in providing information to the government undermined Twitter’s stand.

In response to these disturbing findings, Dan Schneider, the MRC Vice President for Free Speech, did not hold back, saying: “Brazil’s Supreme Court is authoritarian and a serial abuser of individual rights. Americans have a hard time understanding this since the Brazilian government is structured so differently, but it is no surprise that its Supreme Court is again silencing conservatives and trying to lock up those who criticize it.”

Expanding on his response, Schneider added: “That Google would help support such an authoritarian monster is also not a surprise. Google has a long history of cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party while simultaneously refusing to work with our own Defense Department.” 

While Twitter did push back against a criminal investigation and various suits, it did acknowledge censorship of an “extreme right” individual for COVID-19 content, per Shellenberger. 

When Jair Bolsonaro supporters began criticizing TSE and STF, the government entities behind the alleged free speech assault, the courts aimed to have the users demonetized and suppressed online. Jair Bolsonaro and his son Carlos Bolsonaro were among the targets. 

Shellenberger quoted Twitter’s Head of Legal Diego de Lima Gualda, “There is a strong political component with this investigation and the court is trying to put pressure for compliance.” The government not only sought to obtain information but also pushed to reduce interaction with specific content and “certain types of trending hashtags.” Twitter argued the latter was illegal.

By November 2021, however, an appeals court demanded global Twitter removal of “specific URLs related to the plaintiff.” Shellenberger posted that even Brazil’s Federal Police (FBI equivalent) were involved in the TSE investigation by March 2022. 

“On March 30, 2022, the day after de Moraes took office as president of the TSE, the TSE mandated Twitter to, within a week and under the threat of a daily fine of 50,000 BRL (US$ 10,000), supply data on the monthly trend statistics for the hashtags,” Shellenberger explained. IP addresses and subscription information were also requested ahead of the 2022 election. Even congressional members were targeted.

Brazilian attorney Hugo Freitas told Shellenberger the pre-election pressure from TSE was “clearly abusive.” Despite this, Twitter eventually complied with de Moraes’ censorship requests. The government continues to escalate its efforts even now with proposed “Fake News” censorship legislation, Shellenberger added. “TSE’s censorship is an attack on the democratic process,” he concluded. “Elections can remain free and fair only if the public is able to debate and question election laws, systems, and results. If there ever is electoral fraud in Brazil, nobody will be allowed to talk about it, if de Moraes gets his way.”

MRC Assistant Editor for Business and Free Speech America Luis Cornelio contributed to this report.

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