EU Regulator Challenges Musk as Falsehoods Flourish On X Amid Israel-Hamas War

Gabby Miller / Oct 10, 2023

Gabby Miller is Staff Writer at Tech Policy Press.

X owner Elon Musk, left; European Commissioner Thierry Breton, right. May, 2022. Source

A European Union official has once again indicated that he is willing to throw the full weight of the Digital Services Act (DSA) at X (formerly known as Twitter), as its billionaire owner allows disinformation to run rampant on his platform amid escalating violence in the Middle East. The law, which came into effect for certain large platforms in August, creates obligations for companies to address harms such as disinformation and illegal content.

In a letter posted to Elon Musk on Tuesday, European Commissioner Thierry Breton informed Musk that “the DSA sets very precise obligations regarding content moderation” and that the platform must take down illegal content in a “timely, diligent and objective” manner.

On Saturday, a group of militants from the extremist Hamas group launched a full-fledged assault by air, land, and sea on Israel, which has since declared war and launched a military response. With thousands dead, graphic images and videos of abductions, killings, and more have spread rapidly across social media platforms, with misinformation, manipulated content, and lies scattered throughout.

“We have, from qualified sources, reports about potentially illegal content circulating on your service despite flags from relevant authorities,” Breton wrote to Musk. According to multiple reports from journalists and analysts who study disinformation, the problem is particularly acute on X, where false and misleading content has proliferated unchecked. Some examples include:

  • Arma 3 video game footage being passed off as an air assault on Israel by Hamas militants (BBC)
  • Firework celebrations in Algeria presented as Israeli strikes on Hamas (Wired)
  • Digitally manipulated images of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo waving a Palestinian flag (BBC)
  • A salvo of rockets from the Syrian civil war repackaged as Hamas rockets targeting Israel (BBC)
  • False claims that the Saint Porphyrios Orthodox Church in Gaza was destroyed by Israeli bombings (BBC)
  • In an interview, ADL Center for Technology & Society vice president Yaёl Eisenstat said her team had reviewed a false video from a verified account purporting to depict Hamas executing hostages. (Bloomberg)

Musk has also recommended accounts to his roughly 160 million followers that are known to promote lies and conspiracy theories. Musk’s post was eventually deleted, but not before 11 million users had viewed it in only three hours, according to the Washington Post.

Far from contrite and never one to back down from a brawl, Musk promptly shot back at Breton. “Please list the violations you allude to on X, so that the public can see them,” Musk posted. “Merci beaucoup.”

By late Tuesday, Breton responded:

Media manipulation has always flourished during times of conflict and crisis, according to Free Press attorney Nora Benavidez. But, she noted on X, the scale of the problem is particularly acute on the platform given Musk’s decision to systematically gut his platforms’ safety teams and remove important mechanisms that discourage the spread of false claims.

A little more than a week prior to these attacks, Musk was widely criticized for slashing his Election Integrity Team ahead of a super-election cycle that will see at least 65 national-level elections across 50 countries take place over the next year.

And on Wednesday, only days before Hamas militants launched their deadly assault on Israel, Musk removed headlines from linked articles’ embed cards, slashing site accessibility and making it difficult to discern images from news. While this decision was made for, what Musk calls, “esthetic” [sic] purposes, it’s also a thinly-veiled ploy to keep users on the platform as its top (and more credible) advertisers flee the site and X struggles to meet its bottom line. Within hours, users trolled Musk to demonstrate just how easy the change could be weaponized to spread disinformation.

Additional changes Musk has made over the last year of his tenure, like amplifying content posted by users with blue check marks, which can be purchased for only $8 per month, has created a veneer of credibility to known liars at relatively low cost.

Breton indicated that officials in his office would follow up with Musk “on a number of other issues of DSA compliance that deserve immediate attention.” Tech Policy Press has previously reported on the myriad ways Musk may test the EU’s Digital Service Act over the next year, and whether the Act will prove to have the necessary mechanisms built in to rein in the rogue CEO. It may, but the enforcement process will likely be lengthy and complicated.

In the meantime, the real-world consequences of online disinformation, like a rise in related hate incidents and the inability to access reliable information for families and journalists, will likely worsen.


Gabby Miller
Gabby Miller is a staff writer at Tech Policy Press. She was previously a senior reporting fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, where she used investigative techniques to uncover the ways Big Tech companies invested in the news industry to advance their own policy interests. She’s an alu...