Musk’s suspension of journalists on Twitter spurs U.S., international condemnation

Tobias Schwarz/Pool via REUTERS
File-Elon Musk wears a protective mask as he arrives to attend a meeting with the leadership of the conservative CDU/CSU parliamentary group, in Berlin, Germany September 2, 2020.

U.S. and international officials condemned Twitter and Elon Musk on Friday after the social media company abruptly suspended several U.S. journalists, expressing concern about retaliation and the potentially chilling effect on free speech.

The moves invited sharp rebuke from public officials at the European Commission and the United Nations, as well as criticism from a U.S. senator. Even some of Musk’s own supporters, who advocate a broad interpretation of free speech, appeared taken aback by the turnabout.

The fate of the accounts – which Musk has said were suspended for posting location data in violation of new rules – could be resolved by late Friday, when a Twitter poll that he launched on reinstating them immediately or in seven days was scheduled to conclude. The unscientific poll so far is leaning toward reinstating the accounts immediately, although it was unclear if Musk would do so considering he scrapped the results of a similar poll the night before. He has previously restored accounts following such polls.

Accounts that were suspended include @ElonJet, which tracks the location of Musk’s private plane through the use of publicly available data, as well as other accounts that track helicopter and plane locations. Twitter suspended the accounts of several journalists on Thursday night, including from The Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN.

Musk later accused the reporters of posting “basically assassination coordinates” for him and his family – although he provided no evidence that any of the journalists had done so.

Also on Friday, the account of Linette Lopez, a journalist who has written critically of Musk and Tesla, also appeared to be suspended. It was not immediately clear what had prompted the suspension.

Musk took over Twitter in a $44 billion deal in late October, pledging to make the site a haven for “free speech,” much to the delight of some right-wing politicians and pundits who have accused social media companies, often baselessly, of censoring them in recent years.

Musk’s short time leading the company has been marked by upheaval. He has gutted Twitter’s workforce, disbanded an outside trust and safety council, and reinstated numerous banned accounts, including that of former president Donald Trump.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) tweeted in defense of the reporters Friday, saying Musk’s actions “are a fast track to Twitter becoming obsolete.”

European Commission Vice President Vera Jourová, whose brief includes the rule of law and disinformation, tweeted that the “arbitrary suspension of journalists on Twitter is worrying.”

“EU’s Digital Services Act requires respect of media freedom and fundamental rights. This is reinforced under our #MediaFreedomAct,” she wrote. “@elonmusk should be aware of that. There are red lines. And sanctions, soon.”

Twitter and Musk did not respond to a request for comment regarding the European officials’ warnings.

The suspensions came a day after Twitter changed its rules to prohibit the sharing of “live location information” and other information that could show someone’s location.

Several journalists who had been covering and tweeting about the rule change and Musk’s claims were then locked out of their accounts.

The European Union’s Digital Services Act seeks to force tech companies to more aggressively police their platforms for illegal content and be more transparent about how their content moderation systems work. Companies will need to start reporting some information early next year, but the legislation doesn’t fully kick in until 2024.

The E.U. has often imposed stricter rules and cracked down more harshly on tech companies compared with other governments. The DSA is considered one of the most expansive regulations on social media to date. Musk has met with Thierry Breton, the bloc’s internal markets commissioner, about getting Twitter ready for the law.

But the billionaire has also dismantled much of Twitter’s trust and safety team, which helped craft and enforce the rules that users must follow on the site.

Other criticism on Friday came from the German Foreign Ministry, which took to Twitter to warn the company that it takes freedom of the press seriously.

“Freedom of the press must not be switched on and off at will,” it tweeted. “As of today, the journalists below can no longer follow, comment or criticize us. We have a problem with that @Twitter.”

Musk’s tenure has been defined by ad hoc decision-making, botched product rollouts and an overall erosion of Twitter’s relaxed workplace culture. Key decisions have been made among Musk and a trusted group of allies, including his personal lawyer, friends and investors, and deputies loyal to the billionaire.

Musk’s erratic decision-making has been paired with controversial tweets, a sharp challenge to the referee role that some – including investors – say should be played by the chief executive of a social media website. Early after taking over, Musk sent a tweet questioning the official storyline of an attack on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), pushing a baseless claim from a fringe far-right website. And Musk called for the prosecution of infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, alarming some – including Tesla fans and shareholders – who say he should not court political controversy.

Advertisers have expressed uncertainty about the direction of Twitter under Musk, and civil rights leaders have called for them to pause spending on the site.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Twitter users noticed another popular account was no longer active. Helicopters of D.C., which tracks helicopter traffic over the nation’s capital, appeared to have been suspended.

A message on its page read “Account suspended” and cited violations of Twitter’s rules.