SAN FRANCISCO — To Elon Musk, the Brazilian Supreme Court justice is a “dictator.”

In the justice’s view, Musk is allowing his social media platform to support the “digital militias” that are using disinformation to threaten democracy.

Together, they’re making this South American nation the battleground for the global debate on free speech and fake news, a dispute that could affect how people everywhere communicate information, ideas and opinions online.

On one side, there’s Alexandre de Moraes, one of the world’s most aggressive prosecutors of disinformation. In recent years, as right-wing Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters questioned the integrity of Brazil’s elections, Moraes was granted expanded powers to fight false claims online. As head of the country’s top elections court, he has issued arrest warrants against dozens of figures and demanded that social media companies take down scores of accounts.

Then there’s Musk, the combative tech billionaire who, since taking over Twitter, has loosened the platform’s restrictions on hateful content and allowed misinformation to flood the platform in the name of free speech.

Their opposing worldviews exploded into public view this month, when Musk announced he would no longer countenance judicial orders from Moraes, who he said was breaking Brazilian law, and threatened to shutter the platform, now called X, in one of its most active markets.

Moraes, in response, said he was adding Musk as a target in his ongoing criminal investigation into political groups accused of using false information to attack democracy.

Musk did not respond to a request for comment. Moraes declined to comment.

The dispute could influence how social media platforms police their users in countries that regulate free speech differently than the United States. And it’s cementing Musk’s rise as an avatar of the global right, where he’s found common ground with some of its most prominent and polarizing figures.

Since declaring his independence from Moraes’s orders, Musk has met with Argentine President Javier Milei at a Tesla factory in Texas, been invited to a live online appearance with Bolsonaro and said he will meet soon with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. All are populists bolstered by online armies that have been accused of spreading disinformation.

Musk has spent the past week interacting online with conservative Brazilians whose accounts have been banned by Moraes — a group that has long sought his attention. In the United States, meanwhile, congressional Republicans, who have long sparred with tech giants over online censorship, have subpoenaed X’s records related to its operations in Brazil.

Musk’s politics form “a connective tissue between these far-right figures and movements,” said Emerson Brooking, a disinformation researcher with the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council. “He is globalizing America’s culture wars.”

Over the weekend, X walked back Musk’s challenge, telling the court in a letter it would continue to comply with all of its orders, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post.

Musk has not commented publicly on the reversal. X declined to comment.

Musk remains a target of Moraes’s investigation, according to a Supreme Court official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the court. That probe goes beyond X’s content moderation policies into whether Musk is part of an organized threat to the country’s democracy.

Differing definitions of free speech

In Brazil, Latin America’s largest democracy, internet users spend an average of more than nine hours a day online, according to the market research firm Kepios. They enjoy freedom of expression, but it’s not an absolute right.

In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees Americans wide latitude to speak publicly. In Brazil, hate speech and using disinformation to attack people or democracy are crimes.

Bolsonaro and his supporters have strained those limits with misinformation about the coronavirus, unfounded allegations against the electoral system and digital invective. Many who have posted such material have come under investigation by Moraes.

The judge ordered one blogger arrested for allegedly spreading anti-democratic ideas and committing crimes against honor. He ordered the arrest and censure of a federal congressman for calling for a new AI-5, a notorious decree from Brazil’s 20th-century dictatorship that curtailed political freedoms and consolidated the military’s hold on power.

People who have had their social media accounts blocked have also had assets frozen — sometimes, they say, with no explanation of what they did wrong. As a consequence, some have relocated to the United States.

These efforts have drawn criticism not only from the right, but also from tech companies and advocates for free speech. Musk says Moraes has gone too far.

Twitter once enjoyed a reputation for fighting harder than others against demands by foreign governments to censor domestic activists and dissidents. It sued India and Turkey to protect content that was critical of their leaders.

In the United States, the company policed content on coronavirus misinformation and election falsehoods.

But when Musk bought the company in the fall of 2022, he argued that any content should be permitted unless it was expressly illegal. In his first months as chief executive, he rolled back rules against misinformation and restored thousands of banned accounts.

He also began taking steps, including charging for verification and engaging certain users, that have had the effect of boosting the visibility of conservative and right-wing accounts.

The platform’s record since then has been mixed. On the eve of Turkish elections last year, X complied with the demand of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to restrict accounts. The company reportedly blocked the accounts of more than 100 activists and journalists at the Indian government’s request.

“Musk’s X is willing to comply and censor people much more than Twitter ever did,” Brooking said. In Brazil, “Musk has found a cause that lets him articulate his twisted vision of free speech: Not free speech for democratic activists, or for regular people, but for people who share his politics.”

‘Why are you doing this …?’

Moraes wasn’t always a villain to the Brazilian right. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2017 by conservative President Michel Temer.

But in a country haunted by the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985, the rise of Bolsonaro, an open admirer of the regime, changed everything.

As president during the coronavirus pandemic, he dismissed concerns about the coronavirus, railed against vaccinations and pushed unproven treatments.

For more than a year leading up to the 2022 election, a polarizing choice between Bolsonaro and leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolsonaristas pushed doubts about electronic voting systems in a strategy that mirrored Donald Trump’s unfounded accusations in 2020.

Before the vote, Moraes sought an expanded interpretation of the election court’s authority to investigate, censor and prosecute people suspected of undermining public institutions. The Supreme Court granted him the power to order the immediate removal of problematic content — and fine or suspend companies that did not comply.

The effort has drawn criticism.

The court effectively “changed its stance” from having once protected speech to now controlling speech, said constitutional lawyer André Mardiglia, who has represented a magazine that was censored by Moraes. “We understand ourselves to be a democracy, but we do not have the freedom of expression that full democracies have.”

After Bolsonaro’s loss, thousands of his supporters stormed federal buildings in Brasília in January 2023 in what some said was an effort to overturn the election. Moraes called for stronger regulations on social media companies. Two right-leaning platforms, Rumble and its subsidiary Locals, have since pulled out of Brazil.

In another parallel with Trump, Bolsonaro skipped Lula’s inauguration and traveled to Florida, where he discussed online speech with Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon and others, deepening ties with the American far right.

When Musk took control of Twitter, Brazilian conservative influencers who had been targeted by Moraes saw an opportunity. They tweeted at Musk for help.

Musk asked staff to look into their claims, according to a person familiar with the discussion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe it. They concluded that reinstating accounts that had been banned by court order would violate Brazilian law.

Then last week, the company’s government affairs team posted that it had been “forced by court decisions to block certain popular accounts” in Brazil, but could not say which ones and was not told why.

Musk followed with a question for Moraes: “Why are you doing this @alexandre?” Then in a cascade of tweets to his 180 million followers, he called the judge a “brutal dictator,” a “shame” and “Brazil’s Darth Vader.” He said he would be reinstating the accounts.

Moraes, in response, accused Musk of starting a disinformation campaign and coordinating with the digital militias that promoted the Jan. 8, 2023, riot.

Paulo Figueiredo, a Brazilian journalist and influencer based in Florida, said Moraes had censored his social media accounts, frozen his bank accounts and taken away his passport so he could not return to Brazil. He says he does not know why.

Until the Brasília riot, he was a popular commentator on Jovem Pan. The São Paulo-based radio network kicked him and other conservative commentators off the air after Jan. 8.

He now broadcasts from his home studio on seven different social channels and has tagged Musk on X several times in the past year.

In a recent post, Figueiredo urged the X owner to ignore Brazil’s restrictions. Last week, Musk finally responded: He agreed.

Figueiredo called Musk’s new interest in Brazil “a complete game changer.”

Thiago de Aragão, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who advises companies on risk in Latin America, warned that Musk’s fight has potential downsides for X and other tech companies.

“What’s going on in Brazil could inspire other countries to … ultimately become more restrictive,” he said.

The country, said Brooking of the Atlantic Council, could become an important cause for right-wing groups worldwide, including in the United States in an election year in which tech companies have largely retreated from policing misinformation.

“If you’ve built your career around Big Tech censorship … you have to find a new enemy somewhere.”

Cat Zakrzewski in Washington contributed to this report.

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