Elon Musk is no free speech warrior.
The thin-skinned new Twitter owner on Thursday banned the accounts of several high-profile journalists from the nation’s top news organizations, including: CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan; The New York Times’ Ryan Mac; and The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell. Progressive journalist Aaron Rupar and pundit Keith Olbermann were also banned, as were others.
Musk did not return my email seeking comment. But he appeared to claim that the sanctioned accounts had violated his new “doxxing” policy and shared what he said amounted to “assassination coordinates” on him, even though none of the journalists had, of course, done such a thing. O’Sullivan, Mac, and Harwell had reported recently on the banning of @ElonJet, the account that posted real-time updates on the whereabouts of Musk’s private jet. But that’s far different than actually doxxing him.
What the journalists all did have in common was their tenacity to report aggressively on the billionaire or criticize him in commentary — and to do so on Twitter. It’s without question that these bans will serve to chill free speech, not only for those who report on Twitter, but also for those who report on Musk’s other companies, such as Tesla and SpaceX.
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The bans also raise a number of serious questions about the future of the free press on Twitter, a platform that has been referred to as a digital town square. Will news and media organizations remain on the platform, while Musk hastily bans their reporters without explanation? Will they pull their reporters? Their content? And what will major advertisers such as Apple and Amazon do?
As Nate Silver wrote, “News organizations like the NYT already had mixed feelings about their reporters using Twitter and if you can now be suspended from Twitter for doing fairly straightforward reporting, you have to wonder if that’s the tipping point.”
CNN said in a statement that its future on Twitter is up in the air. “The impulsive and unjustified suspension of a number of reporters, including CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, is concerning but not surprising,” a spokesperson said. “Twitter’s increasing instability and volatility should be of incredible concern for everyone who uses Twitter. We have asked Twitter for an explanation, and we will reevaluate our relationship based on that response.”
The Times said in a separate statement of its own, “Tonight’s suspension of the Twitter accounts of a number of prominent journalists, including The New York Times’s Ryan Mac, is questionable and unfortunate. Neither The Times nor Ryan have received any explanation about why this occurred. We hope that all of the journalists’ accounts are reinstated and that Twitter provides a satisfying explanation for this action.”
And The Post’s Executive Editor, Sally Buzbee, said: “The suspension of Drew Harwell’s Twitter account directly undermines Elon Musk’s claim that he intends to run Twitter as a platform dedicated to free speech. Harwell was banished from Twitter without warning, process or explanation, following the publication of his accurate reporting about Musk. Our journalist should be reinstated immediately.”
The bans also shows Musk’s failure to come even close to his claimed commitment to free speech. Musk has touted that he is a free speech maximalist and repeatedly said he would like to permit all legal speech. “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means,” Musk once tweeted.
Those words ring very empty today. As Harwell told me, “Elon says he is a free speech champion and he is banning journalists for exercising free speech. I think that calls into question his commitment.”
It will be interesting — and telling — to see whether some of Musk’s supporters in right-wing media, who have cheered him on for his pro-free speech rhetoric, speak out against these bans.
After all, isn’t Musk the censorship villain now?