A Berlin-based software developer is fighting back after X suspended his account, claiming that research he conducted on the platform violated the company’s terms of service.
Following Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of the platform, Travis Brown‘s research figured heavily in reporting that painted X, formerly Twitter, in an unflattering light. Brown worked on open source projects at Twitter for a year well before Musk’s tenure. After Musk’s purchase, he began researching hate speech and account suspensions on the platform, collecting X data through a software tool he built in conjunction with the Open Knowledge Foundation, a data transparency nonprofit.
Brown announced plans to fight to restore his account with support from HateAid, a German organization that combats digital violence. With the group’s help, Brown won an injunction and had his account restored the first time around, though X appears to be digging in and lawyering up with an outside law firm for this round. That firm filed a 36-page letter in an attempt to end run another legal challenge from Brown, who is now appealing the Berlin District Court’s rejection of his request for another injunction.
“X’s actions are an attempt to silence researchers who are monitoring extremism and disinformation on the platform,” Brown said, arguing that the company’s behavior makes the platform “increasingly dangerous.”
“We will not be silenced, though, and will continue to collect and share data, because we all have a right to understand the effects that these platforms have on our world.“
As Wired reported, Brown was initially suspended without warning from X at the beginning of July. His account came back online following a court order in September but then was disabled again. The company changed its terms of service the same month and added a warning for researchers like Brown: “NOTE: crawling or scraping the Services in any form, for any purpose without our prior written consent is expressly prohibited.” The language echoes Musk’s disdain for ElonJet, a flight tracking account that was banned in the early days of Musk’s takeover.
Brown’s research made a number of headlines as Musk reversed longstanding Twitter policies and slashed the company’s workforce. Last December, Musk unbanned a number of long-banned accounts, including prominent neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, who created the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer. Brown tracked X’s “mass unbanning” at the time, compiling a list of suspension reversals that included their follower count and original suspension date.
Brown’s data has also been cited widely in reports on X’s paid subscriber numbers, which the company doesn’t openly disclose. By November 2022, X had converted around 140,000 users to its paid service, then known as Twitter Blue. According to Brown’s estimates, X Premium — Musk’s overhauled version of Twitter Blue — boasted around 890,000 subscribers as of September 2023. Brown’s data was also the basis of reporting that highlighted the popularity of Twitter’s paid blue checks among far right and extremist figures like white nationalist Richard Spencer, who organized the Unite the Right rally.
X’s clash with Brown is just one example of the company’s crusade against organizations pursuing research about extremism on the platform. X is currently suing the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), accusing the anti-hate group of cratering its advertising revenue by reporting on surges in hate speech under Musk’s leadership. In the lawsuit, the company makes similar claims that the CCDH illegally obtains the data it uses as a basis for its research.
“It is extremely dangerous if independent research and reporting on social networks can no longer take place,” HateAid CEO Anna-Lena von Hodenberg said. “… We support this case with Travis Brown on behalf of all researchers who make public what goes on behind the scenes on the platforms.”