The tech world was sent into a frenzy on Thursday as billionaire Elon Musk, self-proclaimed champion of free speech, silenced several high-profile critics with the suspension of a slew of prominent journalists’ Twitter accounts. Ryan Mac of the New York Times, Drew Harwell of The Washington Post, Matt Binder of Mashable, CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, Micah Lee of The Intercept, political commentator Keith Olbermann, independent journalist Aaron Rupar, and freelance journalist Tony Webster were removed from the platform, leaving many to question Musk’s commitment to free speech.
The journalists shared a common thread of critical coverage of Musk and his management and policy decisions following his October takeover of Twitter. This included a recent controversy over the social media platform’s decision to shut down an account that tracked Musk’s private jet. In an effort to prevent similar issues in the future, Musk announced a retroactive change to Twitter’s content moderation policy, claiming that any instances of posting real-time location data would be treated as a form of doxxing, with a 7-day suspension for the account in question.
The move to silence critics and rivals has raised questions about Musk’s commitment to free speech. In April, he tweeted “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.” He followed this with further clarification, saying that any non-government action to censor or moderate platforms goes against “the will of the people.”
The New York Times criticized Musk for suspending Mac, with Charlie Stadtlander, the newspaper’s Director of External Communications, saying in a statement to Rolling Stone that “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.”
The suspensions come as Musk pushes back against the evils of cancel culture and attempts to paint himself as a “free speech” advocate. He has tweeted catchphrases like “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” and “Transparency is the key to trust.”
The situation escalated on Thursday night when Buzzfeed tech journalist Katie Notopoulos hosted a Twitter Spaces chat dedicated to the suspended journalists, including Sweeney among the speakers. Musk abruptly left the conversation after Notopoulos challenged his rationale for banning journalists and Harrell pointed out Musk was using the same link blocking techniques he critiqued in the Hunter Biden controversy in 2020. A short while later, the Space cut out and everyone in the chat was booted off.
If they’re naughty, they get suspended
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 16, 2022
In a recent interview with Reuters, Ella Irwin, Twitter’s remaining vice president for trust and safety, said Musk has encouraged the company to rely more on automation and less on human review when making content moderation decisions. However, former staffers warned that Musk’s mass firing of security staff and increased reliance on automation is going to make it easier for tyrants to silence their critics.
Now that Musk holds the keys to the Twitter kingdom, he seems to have found some speech — namely, criticism of him by anyone whose soap box rivals his own — to be out of bounds. This raises serious concerns about the state of free speech on the platform.
The suspensions of the journalists’ accounts, whether intentional or not, have left many to question Musk’s commitment to free speech. His actions seem to contradict the message he has been sending to the public for months. As the tech world waits for an explanation and for the accounts to be reinstated, it is clear that the controversy is far from over and that more questions are yet to be answered.