There are few indisputable lessons from history, but if there are any it is that virtually no-one would choose to live under autocracy – in the long run – people flee the nation and seek refuge elsewhere. As one tyrant concentrates power, the elite who used to share in the spoils eventually turns on them. You cannot rely on laws, or systems, or processes – they can be overruled by whim at any given moment. We are getting to watch a vastly lower stakes version of this phenomenon play out in real time online. I’m talking, of course, about Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.
Musk has been trying to draw attention to the wrongdoings of the former regime of Twitter – itself a classic autocrat move – with mixed success. Some outside observers thought the top management of Twitter before the Musk takeover was not doing a good job, and they had made some visible mistakes – such as failing to communicate why the site blocked links to an infamous New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop in 2020.
Musk and a handful of selected journalists have tried to spin the “Twitter Files” as evidence of conspiracy between the US government and the Twitter’s former management. Most of the releases in reality just show the complexities of trying to create consistent rules for a global social network, and the difficulties in managing these relationships.
If Musk and his adherents would like clear and present evidence of double standards and favouritism, however, it can easily be found at Twitter 2.0. Earlier this month, Musk introduced a new rule to allow Twitter to ban @ElonJet, an account that used publicly available data to track the movements of his private jet. When a group of mainstream reporters covered that ban as a story – especially given that, in November, Musk had previously promised not to remove the account – their accounts were also suspended from Twitter, purportedly for linking to ElonJet on other social networks.
Musk then held a Twitter poll as to whether the accounts should be reinstated, and seemingly to his surprise the public voted to restore them immediately. However, several prominent journalists – including CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, the Washington Post’s Drew Harwell and the Intercept’s Micah Lee – were not fully reinstated, although their accounts appear to be live they are unable to post until after they delete the tweets deemed to have broken Twitter’s new rules. On the face of it, this is just Twitter consistently applying its rules: old Twitter would not reinstate accounts suspended for a period of hours or days until the offending content was deleted.
However, the New Statesman has seen multiple examples of right-wing or pro-Russia accounts that have been reinstated without deleting their rule-breaking tweets.
Texts to and from Elon Musk, published in court documents during his takeover bid, show Musk discussing the suspension from Twitter of the right-wing satirical site the Babylon Bee. In March 2022, the site’s Twitter account was taken down after it published a transphobic tweet which misgendered a trans member of Joe Biden’s administration. The Bee’s ban was originally for 12 hours, but because it refused to delete the tweet, it had been barred from Twitter for months – but under Musk it has been reinstated, with the original tweet still visible.
Other cases concern material found to have broken the rules during Musk’s tenure as Twitter owner and CEO. In June, the journalists Kit Klarenberg and Max Blumenthal – whose reporting has been accused of effectively serving as propaganda for the Syrian and Russian administrations (a criticism they deny) – published a story based on material hacked from the personal email exchanges of the journalist Paul Mason, and Emma Briant, a Bard College fellow and academic specialising in information warfare.
Briant reported that various tweets from Klarenberg were based on the hacked information, and received an email from Twitter on 20 December agreeing that the tweets concerned had broken Twitter’s rules on “exposing private info”. However, days later Klarenberg was still tweeting, with the old tweets linking to the offending story still active on the site. He denies ever receiving any notification from Twitter of possible rule breaches or of having access to his account restricted in any way.
Rather than having one set of consistent rules, Musk-era Twitter appears to be applying one standard to many mainstream journalists and another to previously banned right-wing or alternative sites. There is no pattern or logical reason behind it – Twitter’s “amnesty” against banned accounts was agreed by poll, as was the reinstatement of mainstream journalists.
Under Musk, Twitter’s public policies and its previous practices are secondary to the fiat of Elon – it seems that what he says at any given moment goes, and to hell with the rest of it.
A request to Twitter for comment had not been returned by the time of publication. It has been reported that Twitter no longer has a communications team following Musk’s staff cuts.
For Briant, though, the situation is clear: “This starkly illustrates the peril of allowing platforms to be driven by a wealthy conspiracist’s whims,” she said. “Musk’s arbitrary decisions at Twitter are determining whether the public can see the truth – or not.”