Elon Musk’s Twitter journalist purge has begun

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Twitter suspended the accounts of several high-profile journalists on Thursday night, many of whom have been reporting on Elon Musk’s controversial takeover of the company. After facing backlash, Musk decided to reinstate most — but not all — of the suspended accounts by the following day.

While the journalists were given no initial explanation for their suspension, Musk argued soon after that journalists he suspended were “doxxing” him — or revealing his personal information online — by linking to a website called ElonJet that tracked the whereabouts of Musk’s plane using publicly available flight data.

The journalists who were suspended include Donie O’Sullivan from CNN, Drew Harwell of the Washington Post, Ryan Mac of the New York Times, Matt Binder of Mashable, and Micah Lee of The Intercept. The sudden purging seems to contradict Musk’s stated commitment to protecting freedom of speech on Twitter, and sparked concern that Musk could be using his power at Twitter to silence reporters who write critically about the company. On Friday, Twitter also suspended the account of Linette Lopez, a journalist for Business Insider who has written investigative reports about Tesla.

Twitter reinstated the accounts of most of the previously banned journalists on Friday evening. The move came after Musk received publish backlash from the United Nations, US lawmakers, media outlets, and other groups concerned that Musk was stifling press freedom.

Leading up the decision to reinstate the journalists, Musk also ran two polls on his Twitter in which a majority of people voted to reinstate the journalists’ accounts immediately. “The people have spoken. Accounts who doxxed my location will have their suspension lifted now,” tweeted Muskon Friday evening. But two journalists who were suspended in Musk’s recent crackdown: Business Insider’s Lopez and Keith Olbermann, still remained suspended as of Saturday morning.

For independent journalist and former Vox reporter Aaron Rupar, being suspended from Twitter was a shock.

“I was very baffled. I thought people were trolling,” said Rupar, recounting when he started getting messages from other journalists telling him he’d been suspended. Overnight, Rupar lost access to his 790,000 followers. He said he received no warning before being booted. “You basically have to comply with the whims that change day by day of the owner of the platform, that seems pretty unsustainable. It almost seems kind of spiteful.”

Several of the journalists who have been suspended, including Rupar, had recently posted about the debate over @ElonJet — a Twitter account that tracked the whereabouts of Musk’s private aircraft using publicly available flight data. Musk has argued that the account was jeopardizing his physical safety and changed Twitter’s rules to ban the sharing of “live location information” in order to suspend the account. Musk tweeted that the accounts posted his “exact real-time location, basically assassination coordinates.” @ElonJet’s 20-year-old account owner, Jack Sweeney, has argued that the information about Elon Musk’s jets is already public. “If someone wanted to do something, they could do it without me,” he told the New York Times. Some journalists, such as Rupar, had recently tweeted out links to @ElonJet’s alternate Facebook account.

Musk recently tweeted that a “crazy stalker” followed a car carrying his young child, X, and jumped onto its hood. Musk said he is taking legal action against the owner of the ElonJet account for allegedly jeopardizing his family’s safety. The Los Angeles Police Department told press on Thursday that no police reports had been filed yet about the alleged incident.

A few hours after reporters were suspended, several of them joined a live audio conversation using Twitter’s Spaces feature to discuss what was happening. At its peak, more than 30,000 people listened in as Musk briefly joined the conversation. In the Spaces, Musk debated with journalists, arguing that posting a link to the flight tracking website was the same as directly posting his address, and he considers it doxxing.

“There’s not going to be any distinction in the future between so-called journalists and regular people,” Musk said. “You doxx, you get suspended. End of story.”

“I never posted your address,” the Washington Post’s Harwell told Musk.

Musk interjected, “You posted a link to my address.”

Harwell replied, “We posted a link — in the course of reporting about ElonJet, we posted links to ElonJet which are now not online and now banned on Twitter.”

Soon after the exchange, Musk left the Spaces, and Twitter suspended the Spaces feature altogether, reportedly cutting off the journalists’ chat. Musk later tweeted, “We’re fixing a Legacy bug. Should be working tomorrow.”

While some of the deplatformed journalists were initially told that their suspension was permanent, Musk later said that suspensions for doxxing would be temporary — a 7-day automatic suspension for anyone who doxxes. Musk also ran a poll on his Twitter account asking how long he should wait before reinstating the journalists, When a majority of people voted to reinstate the journalists immediately, Musk ran another poll with fewer options. Nearly 60 percent of respondents again voted to reinstate the journalists immediately.

Many journalists on Thursday night expressed concern about Twitter’s decisions. The move could prompt more reporters or the media outlets they work for to leave Twitter and try using alternate platforms, such as Mastodon, Discord, and Post.

“It’s very shady,” said Washington Post tech columnist Taylor Lorenz, who said her account hasn’t been suspended in this wave, despite worries from some of her followers that it might have been. “I don’t understand how news organizations are going to continue to use this platform if they are censoring journalists.”

CNN and the New York Times both sent statements to Recode condemning Twitter’s suspension of their reporters’ accounts and said they are asking the company for an explanation.

“The impulsive and unjustified suspension of a number of reporters, including CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, is concerning but not surprising,” said a spokesperson from CNN in an emailed statement. “Twitter’s increasing instability and volatility should be of incredible concern for everyone who uses Twitter. We have asked Twitter for an explanation, and we will reevaluate our relationship based on that response.”

“Tonight’s suspension of the Twitter accounts of a number of prominent journalists, including The New York Times’s Ryan Mac, is questionable and unfortunate. Neither The Times nor Ryan have received any explanation about why this occurred,” said a spokesperson for the New York Times in a written statement. “We hope that all of the journalists’ accounts are reinstated and that Twitter provides a satisfying explanation for this action.”

The move angered politicians, too. Rep. Lori Trahan (D-MA) tweeted that Twitter staff promised her earlier on Thursday morning that the the company wouldn’t retaliate against journalists or academics who criticize the company. “Less than 12 hours later, multiple technology reporters have been suspended. What’s the deal, @elonmusk?” the lawmaker wrote.

In Europe, EU commissioner Vera Jourova said that Musk’s suspension violated the EU’s Digital Services Act and its Media Freedom Act. “There are red lines. And sanctions, soon,” she tweeted Friday morning.

Meanwhile, the journalists who were suspended are still waiting for news about exactly when their accounts might be reactivated.

Rupar said he tried to appeal his Twitter suspension using the platform’s automated system for doing so, but the link was broken.

“I think it is a cautionary lesson here for outlets and individual journalists. It’s good to diversify to other platforms,” he said. The Twitter purge “will have a chilling effect on anyone criticizing Elon.”

Peter Kafka contributed reporting to this story.

Update, December 17, 12 pm ET: This story, originally published on December 15, has been updated with news that Musk has reinstated several of the previously suspended journalist’s accounts.

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