Twitter’s suspension of journalists draws global backlash

Critics say the episode is evidence that Twitter’s new billionaire owner is eliminating speech and users that he personally dislikes.

A photo of Elon Musk is seen through the cutout of a Twitter logo.
Twitter boss Elon Musk appeared briefly in a Twitter Spaces audio chat hosted by journalists, which quickly turned into a contentious discussion before being abruptly cut off [File: Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]

Twitter’s unprecedented suspension of at least five journalists over claims they revealed the real-time location of owner Elon Musk has drawn swift backlash from government officials, advocacy groups and journalism organisations across the globe.

Officials from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and the European Union condemned the suspensions, with some saying the platform was jeopardising press freedom.

The episode, which one well-known security researcher labelled the “Thursday Night Massacre“, is being regarded by critics as new evidence of the billionaire, who considers himself a “free speech absolutist,” eliminating speech and users he personally dislikes.

The United Nations is “very disturbed” by the arbitrary suspension of journalists on Twitter, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Friday, adding that media voices should not be silenced on a platform professing to give space for free speech.

“The move sets a dangerous precedent at a time when journalists all over the world are facing censorship, physical threats and even worse,” Dujarric told reporters.

The French Minister of Industry Roland Lescure tweeted on Friday that following Musk’s suspension of journalists, he would suspend his own activity on Twitter.

The German Foreign Office warned Twitter that the ministry had a problem with moves that jeopardise press freedom.

The suspensions stemmed from a disagreement over a Twitter account called ElonJet, which tracked Musk’s private plane using publicly available information.

‘Violate the spirit of the First Amendment’

On Wednesday, Twitter suspended the account and others that tracked private jets, despite Musk’s previous tweet saying he would not suspend ElonJet in the name of free speech.

Shortly after, Twitter changed its privacy policy to prohibit the sharing of “live location information”.

Then on Thursday evening, several journalists – including from the New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post – were suspended from Twitter with no notice.

In an email to Reuters overnight, Twitter’s head of trust and safety Ella Irwin said the team manually reviewed “any and all accounts” that violated the new privacy policy by posting direct links to the ElonJet account.

“I understand that the focus seems to be mainly on journalist accounts, but we applied the policy equally to journalists and non-journalist accounts today,” Irwin said in the email.

The Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing said in a statement on Friday that Twitter’s actions “violate the spirit of the First Amendment and the principle that social media platforms will allow the unfiltered distribution of information that is already in the public square”.

Musk appeared briefly in a Twitter Spaces audio chat hosted by journalists, which quickly turned into a contentious discussion about whether the suspended reporters had actually exposed Musk’s real-time location in violation of the policy.

“If you dox, you get suspended. End of story,” Musk said repeatedly in response to questions. Dox is a term for publishing private information about someone, usually with malicious intent.

The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell, one of the journalists who had been suspended but was nonetheless able to join the audio chat, pushed back against the notion that he had exposed Musk or his family’s exact location by posting a link to ElonJet.

Soon after, BuzzFeed reporter Katie Notopoulos, who hosted the Spaces chat, tweeted the audio session was cut off abruptly and the recording was not available.

In a tweet explaining what happened, Musk said “We’re fixing a Legacy bug. Should be working tomorrow.”

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters