Elon Musk has been warned he could face EU sanctions “soon” after several prominent journalists were banned from Twitter.
In a sudden purge which appeared to make a mockery of Musk‘s self-proclaimed free speech absolutism, the billionaire suggested that the reporters had been booted off for sharing personal information about him.
European Commissioner Vera Jourova said the suspensions were “worrying”, and said the billionaire owner risked crossing “red lines” in EU law protecting media freedom.
“Elon Musk should be aware of that,” she tweeted.
“There are red lines. And sanctions, soon.”
Among the affected reporters are staff from CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Mashable.
The German foreign office tweeted screenshots of the banned accounts, adding: “The journalists below can no longer follow us, comment and criticise. We have a problem with that, @Twitter.”
In a bid to excuse the suspensions, which included the account of rival platform Mastodon, Musk said the “same doxxing rules apply to ‘journalists’ as to everyone else”.
Musk’s reference to “doxxing rules”, which means the sharing of personal information, comes in light of Twitter suspending an account dedicated to tracking its owner’s jet.
He threatened to take legal action against the owner of @ElonJet, saying it was a risk to his “physical safety” after alleging that a “crazy stalker” attacked a car carrying his young son.
Musk suggested that the banned journalists had been punished for tweeting about the bot account.
UK fact-checking charity Full Fact, which fact-checks the media and claims on social media, said the bans were a reminder that free speech “is too important to be left in the hands of any internet company”.
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did not directly criticise Musk, saying “regardless of who ownership, social media platforms must balance protecting their users while upholding free speech”.
Mastodon links blocked as Twitter Spaces goes down
Some of the banned reporters have since questioned their suspension in posts on Mastodon, a Twitter-like platform which emerged as a popular alternative following Musk’s $44bn takeover in October.
Mastodon itself has also had its account banned on Twitter, and tweets containing links to some servers and other content there are blocked for being “potentially harmful”.
One of the journalists banned from Twitter, Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell, wrote on Mastodon that he had recently written to Musk and posted links to “publicly available, legally acquired data”.
Under Elon Musk, Twitter is ruled by whim.
Whatever he says goes – and what he says depends on his feelings at that moment, no matter how capricious and arbitrary they might seem to everyone else.
No one who’s followed Musk’s career will be surprised by this development. He has become one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his generation by backing his own instinct, with no regard for who gets hurt.
But unlike cars and rockets, social networking is built on trust. Can the same approach work when it’s playing out in a public forum, involving some of Twitter’s most prominent and productive users?
What if Musk decided to ban a whole publication? Or a politician during an election? What would happen then?
Musk seems to be intent on proving perhaps the greatest argument against social media: that its vast scale concentrates power in too few hands, with worrying consequences for the health of democratic politics.
Knowing this, the founders of social media companies have always trod carefully around this topic, hiding behind swathes of self-made laws and bureaucratic processes. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg even created a pseudo Supreme Court to give him cover for contentious decisions at Facebook and Instagram.
Musk doesn’t do anything carefully, an approach that has brought him great rewards. But at his other companies, the risks were largely contained. Now he’s following his whims while playing with politics and media around the world.
Can it possibly continue? We are about to find out – because if there’s one thing that’s for sure, it’s that Mr Musk won’t change.
Read the full analysis here.
Despite the ban, Mr Harwell was able to take part in a Twitter Spaces chat – the platform’s live audio discussions – alongside other reporters and the @ElonJet account, which Musk himself dropped in on.
“You’re a Twitter citizen, no special treatment, you doxx you get suspended,” he said.
Musk left the call after being challenged by Mr Harwell, and the Twitter Spaces feature was later taken offline.
Musk claimed engineers were “fixing a legacy bug” and it “should be working tomorrow”.
Everything you need to know about Mastodon
‘Questionable and unfortunate’
Another of the banned reporters, Ryan Mac of The New York Times, had tweeted several times about the @ElonJet suspension and interviewed its owner, 20-year-old Jack Sweeney.
A spokesperson for the New York Times said the bans were “questionable and unfortunate” and called for all the reporters to have their accounts reinstated.
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Musk has said bans for doxxing will last for seven days, as he ignored the results of a poll he ran which saw most people vote for them to be reinstated “now”.
He has previously acted in line with the results of his Twitter polls, such as reinstating Donald Trump’s account.
“Power to the people,” were among his first words upon introducing Twitter’s revamped Blue subscription service, which grants customers the blue ticks previously reserved for verified accounts.
“Sorry, too many options. Will redo poll,” he said.
The new version, which asks if the reporters should be reinstated immediately or in seven days, has “now” in a near-20% lead with more than 1.7 million votes cast at the time of writing.
Elon Musk no longer world’s richest person
CNN has asked Twitter for an explanation over the bans, the outlet said.
In a rare statement following the mass lay-offs carried out by Musk, which gutted Twitter’s media relations team, a spokesperson told tech website The Verge that the bans related to the sharing of location data.
Twitter updated its policy on Wednesday to prohibit the sharing of “live location information”.
That’s despite Musk tweeting last month that his commitment to free speech extended “even to not banning the account following my plane, even though it is a direct personal safety risk”.
@ElonJet has now found a home on Mastodon, sharing in its most recent update that the plane landed in San Jose, California, on Thursday night after a three hour, 19-minute flight from Austin, Texas.