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16 December 2022

Elon Musk’s journalist ban will invite politicians to intervene

Silencing the free press crosses a line.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

Twitter, Elon Musk said in the run-up to his $44bn purchase of the social media platform, is the “de facto public town square”. Yet as with any social network, Twitter occupies an odd position: it’s a vital public forum for the exchange of ideas, but it is privately owned. It’s a traditional gripe of those who fall foul of social media’s rules that we think of these places as public utilities, but instead are subject to the whims and decisions of their owners.

Traditionally, those owners – Mark Zuckerberg at Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram; Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter and until recently its CEO; and Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube – have at least given lip service to propriety. The implied social contract is that social media can occupy this odd public-private space provided its chiefs live up to the responsibility they’re given. That means thinking carefully about key decisions on what to allow and what not to allow on their platforms, acceding to regulatory demands as needed and brooking dissent, even if you don’t like it.

Elon Musk has built his reputation by not following rules. This week he’s decided to break the social contract. 

It all started with a 20-year-old student who aggregated publicly-available data about the flight patterns of Musk’s private jet. @ElonJet was a Twitter profile and the brainchild of Jack Sweeney, using data aggregated by airspace authorities to show how frequently Musk uses his jet. (A similar tool helped to highlight pollution caused by Taylor Swift’s jet lifestyle earlier this year.) The publication of such data is protected in the United States by the first amendment, which has been tested in court.

Musk had never liked the account. This year it was claimed that he tried to pay Sweeney $5,000 to shut down the profile, even though others would inevitably have set up an alternative had he done so. But that was before Musk took ownership of Twitter. Now he could do what he wants.

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So Musk blocked Sweeney’s jet-tracking profiles, and barred the man himself from Twitter too. The decision was explained away with a hasty change to Twitter’s official rules banning the sharing of live location information. Musk also cited in his explanation that someone had followed and confronted his son – in a car.

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To head off the inevitable backlash, Musk made an exception for journalists, claiming that sharing live location information would not be in violation of the policy if “the subject of the media is a public figure”.

That proved to be untrue, as overnight Musk banned at least nine journalists for linking to sites that would show users Musk’s flight tracking data. Ella Irwin, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, told one reporter that “we don’t make exceptions to this policy for journalists or any other accounts” – despite the policy saying otherwise.

The silencing of the free press is a concerning development, and makes the case for regulatory oversight of social media even stronger. Technically Musk is within his rights to decide what happens on his platform – even if he is technically infringing on the free speech rights he so duplicitously claims to be promoting. But censorship of the press is a step too far, and one that makes it inevitable politicians will soon step in.

[See also: David Baddiel’s Diary: Shouting at the World Cup, a timeout from Twitter, and why Jews still don’t count]

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