View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. The Staggers
16 December 2022

Elon Musk’s journalist ban will invite politicians to intervene

Silencing the free press crosses a line.

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.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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.

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]

Content from our partners
Future proofing the NHS
Where do we get the money to fix the world's biggest problems? – with ONE
Labour's health reforms can put patients first

Topics in this article : , , ,
Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU