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Brussels launches legal action against Elon Musk's X over illegal content, disinformation

Twitter was renamed X after the purchase of Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla.
Twitter was renamed X after the purchase of Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla. Copyright Noah Berger/AP
Copyright Noah Berger/AP
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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The European Commission has launched legal action against social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, under its landmark law for online platforms, the Digital Services Act (DSA).

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The executive said Monday it would probe whether X may have breached EU rules "in areas linked to risk management, content moderation, dark patterns, advertising transparency and data access for researchers."

The move represents the first-ever proceedings under the DSA, which was designed to create a safer space online, and adds further turmoil to a company that has struggled to find a stable footing since the $44-billion acquisition by Elon Musk.

It follows a request for information sent by the Commission to X in October after it received indications the platform was spreading illegal content and disinformation, particularly terrorist and violent content in the context of the Israel-Hamas war.

If the executive finds sufficient evidence to substantiate its concerns and fails to secure binding commitments from the platform, it could slap the firm with a fine of as much as 6% of its global turnover, which in 2022 would have amounted to about $264 million (€242 million).

Since August 2023, X, which has 112 million monthly active users across the bloc, is one of 17 platforms designated under the DSA as a "very large online platform," making it subject to new, stringent norms on the dissemination of illegal content, the protection of fundamental rights and public security.

Musk has reportedly considered plans to exit the European market in reaction to the provisions introduced by the pioneering legislation.

Chinese-owned AliExpress and TikTok, as well as Instagram and WhatsApp's parent company Meta have in recent weeks received requests for information under the DSA, but no legal action has been taken so far.

"We take any breach of our rules very seriously. And the evidence we currently have is enough to formally open a proceeding against X," said Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission's executive vice-president. 

The opening of the proceeding makes it clear that "the time of big online platforms behaving like they are 'too big to care' has come to an end," said Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for the internal market.

Following Monday's decision, the Commission is entitled to conduct interviews and on-site inspections and request access to X's algorithmic databases as part of its in-depth investigation, which does not have a deadline.

The executive will continue monitoring the platform's compliance with all other obligations under the DSA and could take further action if more wrongdoing is detected. The Commission has urged the company to "cooperate" on the probe, according to a spokesperson.

X did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Euronews.

Four potential infringements

The Commission said on Monday its investigation would focus on alleged breaches under four articles of the DSA related to:

  •  The dissemination of illegal content, including measures taken to identify and swiftly remove illegal content and to allow users to flag such content.
  • Measures taken to combat information manipulation, such as the so-called "community notes" introduced in 2021 to debunk misleading posts.
  • Measures to increase transparency, amid suspected failures to provide researchers with adequate access to X's publicly accessible data, including on paid ads.
  • The suspected deceptive design of X's user interface, such as the so-called "blue checkmark," a paid-for continuation promoted by Elon Musk that designates a user as an "active, notable, and authentic" member of the platform.

Fears about X's role in disseminating illegal content and disinformation have increased since the eruption of violence in the Middle East on October 7th. Graphic and illicit photos and videos of Hamas' incursion into Israel flooded social media platforms, including X, following the initial attack.

An October study by the information rating system News Guard claimed so-called "verified" users of X posted the majority of viral information about the Israel-Hamas war.

Allegations that anti-Semitic and Islamophobic posts were appearing side-by-side with brands' promoted content, as well as billionaire owner Elon Musk's controversial endorsement of an anti-Semitic post, led to an exodus of companies from X's advertising services, including Apple, Disney and IBM.

The European Commission itself has suspended publicity on the platform.

Musk has since aimed to counter criticism by visiting the sites of Hamas' attack in Israel and pledging all advertising and subscription revenues associated with the war to Israeli and Gazan hospitals.

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Days after the war broke out, Commissioner Breton gave Musk a 24-hour ultimatum to clean up the platform's act. The company's CEO Linda Yaccarino responded within the deadline claiming there was "no place on X for terrorist organizations or violent extremist groups" and that the platform removed such accounts "in real time."

A senior Commission official said on Monday that whilst they recognised the raft of measures introduced by X in an attempt to tackle illegal and misleading content, they suspect that "these mechanisms are collectively not effective."

A major concern is that the company lacks content moderators proficient in the EU's 24 official languages and is therefore unable to effectively and consistently execute its policies across the 27-country bloc.

X's latest transparency reports show it employs only one content moderator fluent in Bulgarian, Croatian, Dutch, Portuguese, Latvian and Polish in its global team of 2,294 people. The company has no human content moderators to cover 17 of the EU's official languages, including Greek, Hungarian, Romanian and Swedish.

The Commission is also worried that risk mitigation measures such as "community notes," which appear under potentially misleading posts to provide additional information or contrasting views, are not implemented fast enough in the context of elections or other events with an impact on public security.

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The use of paid-for "blue checks" to verify users' accounts as authentic can also be "misleading and deceptive," the official said. The investigation will address the use of blue checks and other so-called "dark patterns" aimed at tricking users into making unintended, unwilling and potentially harmful decisions.

The probe will also determine whether X has breached its obligations under the DSA by severely limiting researchers' access to data. The platform's data on activity and ad spending was publicly open in an API under the leadership of the previous owner Jack Dorsey, but has been restricted since Musk's April 2022 takeover.

This article has been updated with more information about the investigation.

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