Dec 16, 2022 - Technology

Twitter press suspensions become media flashpoint

Illustration of a bird cage with the Twitter logo inside being held up by a cage carrier in the shape of Elon Musk's face.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The suspension of several journalists on Twitter Thursday immediately set off a firestorm, with mainstream press crying foul over what they perceived as an attempt by Elon Musk to silence his critics and right-wing voices arguing that the liberal media finally got a taste of its own medicine.

Why it matters: Musk has said repeatedly that he stands for free speech, but the inconsistency of his content moderation decisions has begun to alienate traditional media outlets.

What they're saying: "The suspension of (Washington Post reporter) Drew Harwell's Twitter account directly undermines Elon Musk's claim that he intends to run Twitter as a platform dedicated to free speech," said Sally Buzbee, executive editor of The Washington Post.

  • CNN said in a statement it will "reevaluate" its relationship with Twitter based on Musk's response to questions from CNN about why one of its reporters' accounts was suspended.

The other side: "TABLES HAVE TURNED: Elon Musk suspends CNN, NYT, WaPo journalists, reminding them the rules also apply to them," Fox News tweeted.

  • "Oh so now you care about censorship and having your Twitter accounts banned?" tweeted conservative activist Charlie Kirk, founder and president of Turning Point USA.

Between the lines: Musk later confirmed that reporters were suspended for linking to a Mastodon account that actively tracked Musk's private jet. Musk suspended a similar Twitter account on Wednesday.

  • He alleged that by posting links to the account, those journalists had "doxxed" him, and doxxing is a violation of Twitter's policies.
  • Doxxing is typically defined as publishing private or personally identifying information about someone online, often for the purpose of inviting scrutiny or harm to the subject.

Musk later joined a Twitter Spaces audio discussion among journalists, including some of those who were banned, where he doubled down on his decision.

  • In that discussion, the Post's Harwell disputed the notion that linking to the jet account — which aggregates publicly available location information — constituted "doxxing," and reiterated that he never posted Musk's address.
  • In response, Musk repeated that doxxing is against Twitter's rules and violators of those rules would be suspended. He then abruptly exited the audio event, which had roughly 31,000 listeners.

Be smart: Regardless of how they were perceived, the suspensions on Thursday were unprecedented.

  • There's never been an attempt by a major social media platform to suspend so many journalists all at once.
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists said that if the reporters' suspensions are confirmed as retaliation for their work, "this would be a serious violation of journalists' right to report the news without fear of reprisal."

The big picture: Musk's long-held frustration with the mainstream media has put him at odds with one of Twitter's most active user groups.

  • When asked about the role that the traditional press should play on Twitter, Musk has said that he believes in "citizen journalism" as a way to counter the mainstream media's power.
  • "I'm not saying we should somehow downplay the major publications or prominent journalists. I'm simply saying we should elevate people and give voice to the people. Much more, " he said on a Twitter Spaces chat last month.
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