Elon Musk and Brazil’s Supreme Court on a collision course

Brazil

Published on Friday 19 April 2024 Back to articles

May 2022 meeting of Brazil’s then President Jair Bolsanaro and Elon Musk

This month a major stand-off emerged in April pitting US-based tech billionaire Elon Musk against Brazil’s Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) and, in particular, against one of its 11 members, Justice Alexandre de Moraes. It began on 6 April when — in a post on his X social media platform (a.k.a. Twitter) — Musk accused the STF of seeking to block popular accounts without giving any valid reasons. In what was taken as a reference to De Moraes, he complained that ‘This judge has applied massive fines, threatened to arrest our employees, and cut off access to X in Brazil.’ Musk went on to say his support for freedom of speech might cause X to lose revenue and even be closed down in Brazil.

The background involves a history of tension over rules for taking down content that is seen to break Brazilian law. The STF and other domestic courts have been requesting more effective measures against online abuse in the form of fake news and hate speech. Last year X initially resisted Justice Ministry requests to take down around 500 posts and profiles hosting content deemed to be promoting violence in schools which came after various mass shooting incidents. 

De Moraes responded quickly and aggressively to Musk’s posts. On Sunday 7 April he announced that Musk would be investigated for alleged crimes of ‘criminal and malicious manipulation’ on the X platform. Musk retorted by saying the STF justice should ‘resign or be impeached.’ De Moraes has now included Musk in a pre-existing, wide-scope investigation into social media platforms and their dissemination of false news and attacks on democracy in the 2022 elections. One line of investigation is the role of so called ‘digital militias’, groups of people who are alleged to have used the web to attack the STF and to undermine other democratic institutions. 

The political background is that Musk has been close to Brazil’s far right former president Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2023) who has used social media, including X, to question the validity of the 2022 elections. Bolsonaro also faces a series of STF investigations including alleged coup-mongering and the running of disinformation campaigns. He has singled out De Moraes for attack who he claims has overreached his powers and is using them to attack free speech and persecute his opponents on the political right. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (a.k.a. Lula) also waded into the controversy describing Musk as ‘a businessman who never produced anything.’

Jorge Messias, head of the Advocacia Geral da União (AGU), said that the incident showed the need for better regulation of social media. He said, ‘We cannot live in a society in which overseas-based billionaires have control of social networks and claim to be in a position to violate the rule of law and breach court orders, as well as threatening our authorities.’ 

The STF subsequently announced that it was summoning executives from X to hearings into the case. The company filed an appeal arguing that only executives from X Corp head offices — formally based in the US and Ireland — should be involved. However, this was rejected meaning that managers from X Corp’s Brazilian subsidiary will have to attend. One of them, Diego de Lima Gualda, promptly resigned.

By mid-April the dispute seemed to be moving towards a kind of stand-off with both sides assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their position before possible escalation. The government’s position has been somewhat weakened by an impasse in Congress over social media regulation. The so-called ‘Fake News bill, which has seen many drafts since it was first introduced in 2020 has in effect been abandoned, largely because conservatives oppose all types of regulation. House Speaker Arthur Lira says he will set up a working committee to draft a less politically polarised bill from scratch, and within the next 30-45 days. On Musk’s side there may be a realisation that Brazil is a major market — where Musk has other interests to support, including Tesla, Starlight, and lithium mining — and a legal system which supports an activist Supreme Court. Closure of X in Brazil remains a real possibility and could benefit rival social media platforms — including WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and Tik Tok — which all have larger market shares. 

This excerpt is taken from Brazil Focus, our monthly intelligence report on Brazil. Click here to receive a free sample copy.

The April 2024 issue of Brazil Focus also includes the following:

Politics

  • Elon Musk and Supreme Court on collision course

Taking the Pulse

  • Long term birth and marriage rates trend down

Foreign Relations

  • Macron’s visit: warm chemistry but unresolved issues 
  • Brazil hardens its position on Venezuela

Security

  • Don’t mention the coup
  • Police raids focus on money laundering
  • Rio militias act as real estate developers

Economy & Business

  • Retail sector remains strong
  • Inflation dips in March
  • Government give itself more fiscal headroom 
  • Transnordestina rail link back in the running 
  • Surge in car imports from China
  • Gambling market adapts to regulation

Energy Sector

  • Petrobras oil discovery in the Equatorial Margin
  • Minding the petrol and diesel price gap 
  • Coal-fired power still in the mix
  • São Paulo likely to face more power cuts
  • China involved in big power transmission deal

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