Elon Musk’s Malign Influence in Brazil

Dean Jackson / Apr 29, 2024

Dean Jackson is a fellow at Tech Policy Press.

Elon Musk - Shutterstock

At 11:02 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on April 7, 2024, Elon Musk—billionaire investor, tech CEO, and would-be Imperator of Mars—posted on the social media platform he owns, calling for the judge who presides over Brazil’s powerful Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to “resign or be impeached.” In Musk’s view, the judge, Alexandre de Moraes, was guilty of the high crime of censorship.

Days before, Substack author Michael Shellenberger reprised his Twitter files gambit in a post accusing the TSE of “anti-democratic election interference” and decrying the “birth of the Censorship Industrial Complex in Brazil.” The Republican-controlled United States House Judiciary Committee later released a sealed Brazilian Court order, apparently obtained by subpoena, showing that the TSE had ordered Musk to take down about 150 accounts involved in spreading false information about the 2022 Brazilian elections. False claims of fraud in that election culminated in an attempt by ousted President Bolsonaro’s supporters to spark a coup d’etat. In defiance of the TSE, Musk said he would reinstate those accounts; in response, Moraes announced he would include Musk in an investigation into the “digital militias” which contributed to the January 8th, 2022 riots which followed Bolsonaro’s loss. Musk ultimately relented. The accounts remained offline, and the platform formerly known as Twitter avoided a potential ban in one of its largest markets.

In the Brazilian context, Musk is perhaps best understood as a far-right variant of what the US government sometimes calls “malign foreign influence” (a term I have long disliked for its potentially xenophobic interpretations, despite the often good intentions of those that use it). Even when he plays the fool, Musk and his ilk should be considered with deadly seriousness.

Much has been made of Musk’s hypocrisy, both in this incident and in his past handling of critics. After all, this is the man who once tweeted, “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” Musk sometimes sticks true to this principle, meeting government demands in countries like Turkey, where an estimated 90 percent of the national media is controlled by the state and the police have a nasty habit of assaulting journalists. He has similarly bowed to government pressure in India, where government demands that social media companies silence critics have escalated dramatically.

These requests are legal: in the words of India’s deputy technology minister, “We’ve defined the laws, defined the rules, and we have said there is zero tolerance to any noncompliance with the Indian law… You don’t like the law? Don’t operate in India.” Musk seems to have gotten that message. But when it comes to Brazil, where the TSE combats threats against the judiciary and election integrity with the blessing of the Federal Supreme Court, Musk’s reverence for the law comes second to his concern for the speech of right-wing activists.

Observers in the US are right to point out Musk’s inconsistent concern for free speech, which is nakedly reserved for political reactionaries. In Brazil, the debate has played out a little differently. While many Brazilians use X, it is a foreign presence in their country. So is the influence of its owner. Brazil’s solicitor general, Jorge Messias, as much as said in a post to the platform, writing that “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.”

Americans see Musk’s antics as a matter of high politics of the sort practiced in the prestige TV series Succession. Brazilians see them as a matter of state sovereignty. From the point of view of many Brazilians, Musk is a renegade foreign tycoon, putting his thumb and substantial wealth on the scale in favor of forces that very recently attacked Brazil’s hard-won democracy. This perspective has parallels with US efforts to force ByteDance to divest from TikTok—or to ban it, should no buyer present itself or if Beijing blocks any sale. A foreign-owned platform; allegations of politically motivated content moderation; the possibility of a ban; concerns about free expression. The major difference is that the allegations against TikTok—at least those substantiated with public evidence—are subtle and within the law. The allegations against Musk are anything but: defiance of the law is part of the point. From that perspective, a Brazilian ban on X would be on firmer ground than a US ban of TikTok (even if it is still not beyond critique).

Another major difference is that the consequences of Musk’s actions are larger and more tangible than any publicly presented argument against TikTok. At first glance, his decision not to reinstate the banned accounts may look like capitulation; but in speaking with Brazilian colleagues, they are not so sure. Musk has successfully reignited a debate about free speech in Brazil, where even some sympathetic observers worry about judicial overreach—even if those concerns take a backseat to preserving democracy against more imminent threats. The far-right is hailing him as a hero. Former President Bolsonaro himself called Musk “the man who really preserves true freedom for all of us.” And while it has received significantly less press coverage, Brazil’s latest attempt at platform regulation has been largely scuttled by the combined criticisms of tech lobbyists and conservative lawmakers. If this was part of a larger strategy all along—and with Musk, it’s hard to know—then it was a clever one.

In light of these events, it is ironic that the phrases “authoritarian influence,” “foreign influence,” and their synonyms mostly conjure up images of furtive spies tilting public discourse in favor of Moscow and Beijing. Yet US-encouraged efforts to investigate and counter the influence of these countries—efforts which receive billions of taxpayer dollars worldwide—are often met with skepticism in Brazil. Nina Santos, a Brazilian scholar, recently called them “a war that doesn’t deal with our problems.”

Musk is arguably a more proximate threat to Brazilian and American democracy than the Putinist or Chinese Communist regimes. He is a hard riddle to solve: his assets have made him essential to US national security priorities, and he wears political controversy like armor in a way that is reminiscent of former President Donald Trump.

He is also not alone: anyone who thinks the global far-right is not networked has not been paying attention. After Bolsonaro’s loss in the 2022 Brazilian election, his son went to Mar-a-Lago to meet with former Trump advisors Steve Bannon and Jason Miller. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian government has long supported European far-right parties that are now growing in power and influence across the continent. In 2022, Hungary’s Viktor Orban headlined the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) a week after saying Europeans should not become “mixed race” and seemingly making a joke about the Holocaust; Hungary has now hosted CPAC three times. Some of the relationships in the international far right are longstanding: for example, the World Congress of Families, an international organization designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was founded in 1997 in a meeting between American and Russian conservatives. Others, like Musk’s dalliance with Bolsonaro, are newer.

In 2023, the democracy advocacy organization Freedom House found that “global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year.” The rate of decline seen in Hungary, the US, and India have been among the largest over the last decade. These declines are less attributable to US national adversaries than to the rise of populism, illiberalism, and nationalism and the combined effects on democratic institutions. Those who profess to defend democracy should start by acknowledging these are its gravest threats, or else admit that they are largely engaged in realpolitik.

If that sounds like a slight, it shouldn’t. US national security is a worthy goal, and a world where Moscow and Beijing are unconstrained would be demonstrably worse. But inaccurate labels can lead to poor strategy and to allegations of hypocrisy, which undermine and distract from important work. Democracy will be better off if we name the challenge accurately and prioritize efforts to meet it.


Dean Jackson
Dean Jackson is the principal behind Public Circle Research and Consulting and a specialist in democracy, media, and technology. Previously, he was an investigative analyst with the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol and project manager of the Influence Operatio...