Free speech hypocrisy?: Elon Musk suspends multiple journalists from Twitter

The social media platform's new owner claims to be all for free speech, but his latest move invites allegations of hypocrisy and arbitrariness.

WrittenBy:Aditi Agrawal
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Elon Musk’s free speech project at Twitter is going well. The maverick billionaire has seemingly launched a wide-ranging content moderation, re-platforming and de-platforming regime at the social media platform that he acquired recently. 

In his latest controversial move, Musk has permanently suspended competitor Mastodon’s Twitter account. So much so that if you try to post a Mastodon link on Twitter now, it doesn’t work. Trying to click on existing Mastodon links on Twitter yields a “this link may be unsafe” warning. 

Alongside, Twitter has suspended a number of journalists who cover Big Tech and have been reporting on Musk’s Twitter 2.0 over the past couple of months. They include the Washington Post’s Drew Harwell, the New York Times’s Ryan Mac, Mashable’s Matt Binder, CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, former Vox reporter Aaron Rupar, independent journalist Tony Webster, the Intercept’s Micah Flee, political and sports commentator Keith Olberman, and Voice of America’s Steve Herman.

Mac, whose usual Twitter account @rmac18 was permanently suspended, used his backup account @MacSilenced, which was later suspended as well. 

The New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, and Voice of America all condemned the action and demanded that their journalists be reinstated immediately. CNN went as far as to say that it had asked Twitter for an explanation and would “reevaluate our relationship based on that response”. 

What prompted the move?

A prominent automated, flight-tracking account that tracked Musk’s private jet using public data was suspended on Thursday. This account is run by Jack Sweeney, a 20-year-old university student from Florida and a self-described Musk fan who runs several such accounts.

In November, Musk had tweeted that his “commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane”. On Thursday, however, he claimed that a “crazy stalker” had followed the car carrying his son. In the following tweet, he posted a video with this person’s face and car registration number. 

He has since said that “legal action" is being taken against Sweeney and "organizations who supported harm to my family”. Sweeney had earlier rejected a $5,000 offer from Musk to shut down ElonJet. 

Musk accused Sweeney and all the suspended journalists of posting his “exact real-time location, basically assassination coordinates, in (obvious) direct violation of Twitter terms of service”. 

Twitter policy change

Some time later, Twitter announced a change in its Private Information Policy to “prohibit sharing someone else’s live location in most cases”. In the updated policy, sharing “live location information, including information shared on Twitter directly or links to 3rd-party URL(s) of travel routes, actual physical location, or other identifying information that would reveal a person’s location, regardless if this information is publicly available” is not allowed. While doxxing – sharing private information about an individual without their consent – has been not allowed on Twitter since before Musk's acquisition, inclusion of flight data is a new update.

If a user posts private information (home address, private documents, etc.), Twitter will inform them about it and ask them to remove the content. The platform will also temporarily lock them out of their account for an undefined period. If this is repeated after the first warning, the account is permanently suspended. In the updated policy, any account “dedicated to sharing someone’s live location” “will be automatically suspended”. Musk, however, tweeted that doxing results in a “temporary 7 day suspension”. 

However, it is not a violation to tweet about any audio-visual content (called “media” in the policy) if “the subject of the media is a public figure”. Musk is, inarguably, the most public of public figures on his own platform.

Musk later tweeted that “delayed” posting of location would be okay and on being prompted by Sweeney, clarified that this meant a 24-hour delay. On the other hand, the Twitter Safety account said that tweeting precise location would be allowed as long as it was “not same day”.

In a Twitter Spaces session with journalists that Musk briefly joined after these developments, he said that journalists would not be exempted from the private information policy. However, the policy exempts audio-visual content that “is being covered by mainstream media”. Harwell pushed back against Musk’s claim that the journalists had posted links to his address. Harwell said that he had posted the links to the ElonJet account on Mastodon which now leads to a harmful website link, something which Musk had criticised during the Hunter Biden controversy in 2020. 

As Buzzfeed’s Katie Notopoulos was following up on Musk’s response, Musk left the session, and a little while later, the session cut out. 

'Policy was not followed'

In the case of Sweeney and his account ElonJet, no warning was given, he said Mastodon. “Jack was not given a chance to abide by this new policy that Elon changed within a matter of hours,” Harwell said. 

In fact, in response to a tweet, Musk said “real-time posting of someone else’s location violates doxing policy, but delayed posting of locations are ok”. He was fact-checked by Twitter’s own community-sourced tool called Community Notes (earlier called Birdwatch) which pointed out that “publishing flight records is protected under the First Amendment”. In addition, Twitter Safety’s official account tweeted the change to the policy at 4.42 am, almost an hour after Musk tweeted about the policy. It is not clear when Twitter’s blog post was updated but archived snapshots from December 14 show the older policy. 

Mastodon’s account on Twitter, @joinmastodon, was also suspended for tweeting the link to ElonJet’s account. 

As was an account linked to India's homegrown Twitter alternative Koo. The account, @kooeminence, was set up only a few days ago to handle queries from VIPs and celebrities. It is not clear which Twitter rule it violated to attract suspension. Aprameya Radhakrishna, the company's CEO, tweeted, "How is this free speech and what world are we living in?"

Harwell’s last tweet before permanent suspension pointed out that Twitter had suspended its competitor’s account for posting a link to ElonJet’s Mastodon account along with a screenshot of the tweet and Musk’s April 27 tweet where he said, “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law." On April 25, Musk had tweeted, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means."

Harwell, too, was not given a warning as required by the policy. Webster’s account was also suspended without warning or reason being given. In fact, Harwell had not tweeted anyone’s live location, just like Mastodon had not. Mac also said that he received no warning or reason for suspension. Lee’s last tweet was about Twitter banning Mastodon’s Twitter account. 

Binder had tweeted O’Sullivan’s tweet about the Los Angeles Police Department statement that the LAPD was in contact with Musk and that no crime reports had been filed, according to Rolling Stone

In the last two hours, Musk has run two polls asking people when the accounts who “doxxed [his] exact location in real-time” should be unsuspended. The first poll had more than a million votes while the second poll, which will end tomorrow, already has over a million votes. 

Free speech?

In a Spaces session earlier today, Harwell said, “This type of arbitrary, capricious management worries me”, referring to Musk's actions, because it has an adverse impact on “those who use Twitter for advocacy, whistleblowing…and perhaps do not have the support of big organisations and newsrooms”. Such people get “wiped off by the owner who changes policies willy nilly” and the “microphone gets taken away from all these people who could really use it”.

This Spaces session was hosted by Notopoulos. It was also attended by the suspended account ElonJet. Nobody could figure out how suspended accounts could still attend Spaces, including Harwell who acknowledged it during the Spaces session. Lee’s toot about this showed how despite permanent suspension, the users can scroll through their feed but cannot tweet. 

Sweeney said during the session that he was not sure if you would continue to post live updates about aircrafts around the world. Harwell pointed out that the manner in which Sweeney reports the flight data “is tantamount to reporting” because it is about holding people in power accountable, and that calling it “doxing and stalking” is a “mischaracterisation”. For instance, he said, people closely tracked top Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. “Elon is trying to make it about doxing and stalking but that is not it. It is about sharing and using public data,” he said. 

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