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Brazil Supreme Court justice orders investigation of Elon Musk over fake news and obstruction

DAVID BILLER
April 07, 2024

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- A crusading Brazilian Supreme Court justice included Elon Musk as a target in an ongoing investigation over the dissemination of fake news and opened a separate investigation late Sunday into the executive for alleged obstruction.

In his decision, Justice Alexandre de Moraes noted that Musk on Saturday began waging a public "disinformation campaign" regarding the top court's actions, and that Musk continued the following day -- most notably with comments that his social media company X would cease to comply with the court's orders to block certain accounts.

"The flagrant conduct of obstruction of Brazilian justice, incitement of crime, the public threat of disobedience of court orders and future lack of cooperation from the platform are facts that disrespect the sovereignty of Brazil," de Moraes wrote.

Musk will be investigated for alleged intentional criminal instrumentalization of X as part of an investigation into a network of people known as digital militias who allegedly spread defamatory fake news and threats against Supreme Court justices, according to the text of the decision. The new investigation will look into whether Musk engaged in obstruction, criminal organization and incitement.

Musk has not commented on X about the latest development as of late Sunday.

Brazil's political right has long characterized de Moraes as overstepping his bounds to clamp down on free speech and engage in political persecution. In the digital militias investigation, lawmakers from former President Jair Bolsonaro's circle have been imprisoned and his supporters' homes raided. Bolsonaro himself became a target of the investigation in 2021.

De Moraes' defenders have said his decisions, although extraordinary, are legally sound and necessary to purge social media of fake news as well as extinguish threats to Brazilian democracy -- notoriously underscored by the Jan. 8, 2023, uprising in Brazil's capital that resembled the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.

On Saturday, Musk -- a self-declared free speech absolutist -- wrote on X that the platform would lift all restrictions on blocked accounts and predicted that the move was likely to dry up revenue in Brazil and force the company to shutter its local office.

"But principles matter more than profit," he wrote.

He later instructed users in Brazil to download a VPN to retain access if X was shut down and wrote that X would publish all of de Moraes' demands, claiming they violate Brazilian law.

"These are the most draconian demands of any country on Earth!" he later wrote.

Musk had not published de Moraes' demands as of late Sunday and prominent blocked accounts remained so, indicating X had yet to act based on Musk's previous pledges.

Moraes' decision warned against doing so, saying each blocked account that X eventually reactivates will entail a fine of 100,000 reais ($20,000) per day, and that those responsible will be held legally to account for disobeying a court order.

Brazil's attorney general wrote Saturday night that it was urgent for Brazil to regulate social media platforms. "We cannot live in a society in which billionaires domiciled abroad have control of social networks and put themselves in a position to violate the rule of law, failing to comply with court orders and threatening our authorities. Social peace is non-negotiable," Jorge Messias wrote on X.

Brazil's constitution was drafted after the 1964-1985 military dictatorship and contains a long list of aspirational goals and prohibitions against specific crimes such as racism and, more recently, homophobia. But freedom of speech is not absolute.

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