If you’re a Twitter user, at this point it probably seems like Elon Musk has been running the company for almost forever. In reality, Musk’s $44 billion purchase of the social media company closed on October 27, less than two months ago. Musk cited free speech concerns as a reason for purchasing Twitter but often free speech seems to have taken a backseat in his erratic reign. That was the case this week as Twitter summarily suspended a number of journalistic accounts that were critical of Twitter’s new head honcho.
Over the past few days, Twitter first banned an account that provided tracking information for Musk’s private jet. At the same time, the company also banned the personal account of Jack Sweeney, 20, the user who tweeted the location of Musk’s plane.
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The ban may have been precipitated by an incident in Los Angeles where Musk claims that a car carrying his son was assaulted by a stalker. There seems to be no evidence that the attack was related to Sweeney, the assault was on a car rather than a plane, but the BBC reports that Twitter’s media policy was updated to prohibit posting personal information such as real-time locations “without their express authorization and permission.”
The interesting thing here is that Sweeney’s account posted public rather than private information. There are a number of websites that track aircraft using their tail numbers or ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) data from the aircraft’s transponder. Aircraft owners can request these sites to block information from their planes.
Musk has blocked his information from some sites but not others. Sweeney’s tracking accounts are still active on Instagram and Facebook using this public, unblocked data as I write this.
Shortly after banning Sweeney’s accounts, Twitter banned several prominent journalists from the site. CNN reports that CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, The New York Times’ Ryan Mac, The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell, and independent journalist Aaron Rupar are among the accounts that have been recently suspended. Some of the accounts appear to be suspended permanently while others are temporarily banned.
In a series of tweets, Musk claimed that the suspensions were related to “doxxing real-time location info,” but none of the suspended journalistic accounts seem to have done so. Shortly after taking the helm of the company, Musk pledged not to ban the account following his plane even though it represented a risk to his personal safety.
The wave of suspensions comes only a few days after Musk’s release of the so-called “Twitter files,” messages between Twitter employees that relate to suspensions under the previous Twitter regime of Jack Dorsey and alleged collusion with the government to hush up a news story about Hunter Biden’s laptop during the 2020 election. The uncomfortable truth here is that Twitter seems to have acted within its rights and broken no laws, even if Musk and others disagree with the company’s actions. Government collusion to suppress the story, while not proven, would have to be laid at the feet of the Trump Administration, which was in power at the time.
More to the point, a week ago, Elon Musk was attacking closed-door decisions to ban accounts for what amounts to exercising free speech. This week, it is Musk himself who is banning accounts for opaque and dishonest reasons. In his recent actions, Musk seems to be engaging in ex post facto rulemaking in which he retroactively punishes accounts for activity that was permissible when posted.
Maybe these are reasonable actions on both sides. It’s understandable for a father to get defensive when his child is threatened. On the other hand, when a president uses a platform to provoke a riot and launch a coup attempt, maybe that merits a response as well, even if Twitter’s community standards didn’t expressly prohibit spreading lies to incite an insurrection. To put it another, way:
The big difference is that Donald Trump and many of the other accounts banned in connection with January 6 were advocating political violence against their fellow Americans and the government. The accounts banned by Musk simply followed his aircraft’s location and may or may not have been an indirect link to a stalker harassing his son.
What about the accounts suspended before January 6? There are too many to assess individually, but I think that most probably were in violation of Twitter rules. In many cases, it seems that users on the right weren’t just outraged that radical voices on the right were being silenced, but that radical voices on the left were not.
It wasn’t a question of having rules. It was that the rules weren’t being evenly applied.
At one point, I became a victim of overzealous censors or algorithms myself. In March 2021, a Facebook page that I had operated for years was unpublished due to violations of “community standards.” I had always tried to run a clean, civil page and it wasn’t clear what standards I had violated, but I realized that it was up to Facebook to determine what to allow on its platform.
In the aftermath of that incident, I suggested that the free market be allowed to fix Facebook rather than relying on government regulation. For a time, it seemed that Elon Musk might be taking that advice to heart with his acquisition of Twitter.
That may be how it started, but how it’s going is that Musk’s reign has become a cautionary tale about good intentions and the corrupting influence of absolute power. Rather than being a champion of free speech, Musk is acting like an authoritarian with his increasingly arbitrary restrictions on speech.
But that’s okay. Twitter is still a private company. The First Amendment does not prohibit private organizations from censoring content on their own platforms.
It does, however, make Musk a hypocrite.
Maybe he just learned over two months and $44 billion that moderating social media content is not as easy as it seems. The partisan positions now seem to be reversed as the right applauds Musk’s crackdown and the left decries it.
The bottom line is that both sides are implicitly agreeing that unfettered free speech on the internet is not the best option. These sites need to have content moderation and enforcement of rules to protect the platform’s civility and decency. These rules need to be clear and evenly applied.
It does seem that Musk’s backers should be concerned. Users and advertisers are fleeing Twitter as it becomes more like Truth Social or Parler (complete with QAnon-adjacent posts by the Twitterer-in-chief). Tesla stock, which Musk reportedly used to finance the Twitter deal, has also tanked since October, dealing a blow to Musk’s net worth.
But in the end, the free market may still provide the answer. As Twitter declines, a number of other platforms are vying for the position of its potential replacement. Among these are Post, Mastodon, and Counter Social. I have created accounts on all three although I’m not active yet, and I’m not sure which, if any, will ultimately be my favorite. Just look for @captainkudzu.
And I’m still on Twitter with the same user name as well unless this gets me banned.
PUNISHMENT POLL: Musk has tweeted a poll to gauge public opinion on the suspensions meted out to the journalists. As I write this, it isn’t close.
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Surprisingly to me, I disagree with almost everything in this article. Without diving deep, I can summarize:
1. All six accounts didn’t just “criticize the head honcho,” they were tied to the tracking software or reporting what was happening. Appears to be an overreaction but your recasting of the context is disingenuous IMO.
2. Yea flight info is public. Shockingly so. But that doesn’t change the nature or concern of this, or how ridiculous it is that this kid is posting it real time. That would make ANYONE upset. Let alone when they receive daily threats and their kids are involved. Seriously David. Why don’t you post your wife’s location in real time to millions of people. Would that be completely normal? This wasn’t a question of legality. It was a question of propriety.
3. You say it “doesn’t seem” that those six accounts were related to “doxxing” activity, but you don’t know. So why make a conclusion based on what you don’t know? Elon clearly is overreacting, but it’s clearly not a “purge” like some have said or “for criticizing the head honcho” as you said. You are literally calling his reasons “opaque and dishonest” but admit earlier you can’t be sure. “May or may not,” and “seem” don’t provide cover for your own lack of surety here. The next paragraph you *seem* to reverse yourself by saying they may be “reasonable.” Huh?
4. Constantly tying this to trump is not logical. But clearly that’s what you’re doing and might explain the unreasonable jumps to conclusions or criticisms you’re laying out. You’re qualifying a judgment of action Z on what happened with action A, years earlier, even though the players and subjects are different.
This reads like an internal thought conversation with yourself, as you said one thing, break it down, possibly reverse, but settle elsewhere. A few contradictions, and little evidence of your sentiment, both explicit and implied.
I’m glad you admitted your own suffering at the hands of inconsistent algorithms. I have dealt with it too. It’s maddening.
And yes, Elon appears to be overreacting to one kids stupid behavior. Journalists are like dogs. You throw red meat out there instinct takes over. Punishing them for doing what they’re designed to do seems like a bad PR move.
But my concession on that is not the same as attacking his actions or calling him a hypocrite. I wouldn’t accuse a husband of hypocrisy if he enforced the law as a cop during the day and punched a man intimidating his wife at night. Personal emotion is a powerful thing. And right now the entire world is hyper focused on every small action elon takes. Including Racket apparently.
He’s a flawed man. He does stupid things. But the OBSESSION everyone has over his every move is driving me crazy. Y’all have gone kardashian on him. I don’t want to have to free my eyes of free speech just because of my usual sources become a monolith of obsession over one guy who’s as human as any of us. 🤷🏻♂️
"Musk is a hypocrite."
You could have just started and ended the article there David. Everything else is just flogging the noodle brother. The quote from Bill Gates could never have been more untrue: "with great wealth comes great responsibility," then when laid next to Elon Musk's name.
He's simply become a shameless hack who enjoys pissing in anyone/everyone's Wheaties. Why you ask? Because he can. Because he's a man bored with his daily existence and here's where you are spot on right in comparison to trump: He needs to see his name in lights every morning he crawls out of bed.
He subscribes to the Daniel Schorr theory; "if you don't exist in the media, for all practical purposes you don't exist." Like trump, he sees no press as bad press, just more marketing...and soothing his ego