Elon Musk’s abrupt suspension of several journalists who cover Twitter is adding to a growing rift between the social media site and media organizations that have used the platform to build their audiences.
Accounts of reporters with The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Voice of America and other publications, went dark Thursday.
The suspension of journalists continued Friday with the account of a Business Insider columnist who published a series of articles between 2018 and 2021 highlighting what she called dangerous Tesla manufacturing shortcomings.
There was an exodus of advertisers shortly after the billionaire’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter in October over content moderation and Musk now risks a rupture with media organizations, among the most active on the platform.
The company hasn’t explained to the journalists why it took down the accounts and made their profiles and past tweets disappear. But Musk took to Twitter on Thursday night to accuse journalists of sharing private information about his whereabouts that he described as “basically assassination coordinates.” He provided no evidence for that claim.
Business Insider’s Linette Lopez told The Associated Press that she was given no explanation for the suspension. Shortly before being suspended, she said she had posted court-related documents to Twitter that included a 2018 Musk email address. That address is not current, said Lopez, because “he changes his email ever few weeks. If he wants to call that doxxing, fine.”
On Tuesday, she posted a 2019 story about Tesla troubles, commenting “Now, just like then, most of @elonmusk’s wounds are self inflicted.” The same day, she called reports of Musk reneging on severance for laid off Twitter employees, threatening workers who talk to the press and refusing rent payments “classic Elon-going-for-broke behavior.”
Alarm over the suspensions extended beyond media circles, however.
“From our standpoint, the move sets a dangerous precedent at a time when journalists all over the world are facing censorship, physical threats and even worse, and we are remaining in touch with officials,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
The sudden suspension of news reporters followed Musk’s decision Wednesday to permanently ban an account that automatically tracked the flights of his private jet using publicly available data. That also led Twitter to change its rules for all users to prohibit the sharing of another person’s current location without their consent.
Several of the reporters suspended Thursday night had been writing about the new policy and Musk’s rationale for imposing it, which involved his allegations about a stalking incident he said affected his family on Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
The official account for Mastodon, a decentralized social network billed as an alternative to Twitter, was also banned. The reason was unclear, though it had tweeted about the jet tracking account.
“Same doxxing rules apply to ‘journalists’ as to everyone else,” Musk tweeted Thursday. He later added: “Criticizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not.”
“Doxxing” refers to disclosing online someone’s identity, address, or other personal details.
The Washington Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, called for technology reporter Drew Harwell’s Twitter account to be reinstated immediately. The suspension “directly undermines Elon Musk’s claim that he intends to run Twitter as a platform dedicated to free speech,” Buzbee wrote. “Harwell was banished without warning, process or explanation, following the publication of his accurate reporting about Musk.”
CNN said in a statement that “the impulsive and unjustified suspension of a number of reporters, including CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, is concerning but not surprising.”
“Twitter’s increasing instability and volatility should be of incredible concern for everyone who uses Twitter,” CNN’s statement added. “We have asked Twitter for an explanation, and we will reevaluate our relationship based on that response.”
The U.N. is also reconsidering its involvement in Twitter, according Dujarric.
Another suspended journalist, Matt Binder of the technology news outlet Mashable, said he was banned Thursday night immediately after sharing a screenshot that O’Sullivan had posted before his own suspension.
The screenshot showed a statement from the Los Angeles Police Department sent earlier Thursday to multiple media outlets, including The Associated Press, about how it was in touch with Musk’s representatives about the alleged stalking incident.
“I did not share any location data, as per Twitter’s new terms. Nor did I share any links to ElonJet or other location tracking accounts,” Binder said in an email. “I have been highly critical of Musk but never broke any of Twitter’s listed policies.”
Late Thursday, Musk briefly joined a Twitter Spaces chat hosted by journalist Kate Notopoulos of Buzzfeed. Musk stood by the suspensions saying, “You doxx, you get suspended, end of story.”
He abruptly left the conversation and a short time later, all of Twitter Spaces went offline.
Some of the journalists who had been suspended, and also the creator of the Elon Jet Twitter account, were on the Spaces chat with Musk despite the suspension of their Twitter accounts due to what appears to be a technical quirk.
Musk later tweeted that “We’re fixing a Legacy Bug” and that the service should be up and running again Friday. It remained dormant Friday afternoon.
The suspensions come as Musk makes major changes to content moderation on Twitter. He has tried, through the release of selected company documents dubbed as “The Twitter Files,” to claim the platform suppressed right-wing voices under its previous leaders.
He has promised to let free speech reign and has reinstated high-profile accounts that previously broke Twitter’s rules against hateful conduct or harmful misinformation, but also has said he would suppress negativity and hate by depriving some accounts of “freedom of reach.”
The nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, which defends journalists around the world, voiced concern.
“If confirmed as retaliation for their work, this would be a serious violation of journalists’ right to report the news without fear of reprisal,” the group said.
If suspensions lead to the exodus of media organizations that are highly active on Twitter, the platform would be changed at the fundamental level, said Lou Paskalis, longtime marketing and media executive and former Bank of America head of global media.
CBS briefly shut down its activity on Twitter in November due to “uncertainty” about new management, but media organizations have largely remained on the platform.
“We all know news breaks on Twitter, it has been stock and trade since I’ve been using Twitter, and to now go after journalists really saws at the main foundational tentpole of Twitter,” Paskalis said. “Driving journalists off Twitter is the biggest self-inflicted wound I can think of.”
The suspensions may be the biggest red flag yet for advertisers, Paskalis said, some of which had already cut their spending on Twitter over uncertainty about the direction Musk is taking the platform.
“It is an overt demonstration of what advertisers fear the most,” Paskalis said. “Retribution for an action that Elon doesn’t agree with. That would be the No. 1 reason to pause advertising on Twitter if I haven’t done so already.”
Advertisers are also monitoring the potential loss of Twitter users. Twitter is projected to lose 32 million of its users over the next two years, according to a forecast by Insider Intelligence.
They’re projecting a nearly 4% drop in 2023 and another 5% drop in 2024, as technical issues and the return of accounts banned for offensive posts return under new Twitter rules.
Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in London, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Frank Bajak in Boston and Hillel Italie and Edith Lederer in New York, contributed to this report.