Analysis

Elon Musk bans journalists and blocks Mastodon - so much for free speech

Elon Musk called himself a “free speech absolutist” - that’s not how it’s working out, writes Adam Gearing

<p>Elon Musk has banned several journalists from Twitter (Image: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld)</p>

Elon Musk has banned several journalists from Twitter (Image: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld)

Elon Musk has suspended a number of prominent journalists from Twitter, for allegedly sharing real-time information of the billionaire’s location. Musk has cited “doxxing” as the reason behind the suspension - doxxing being the act of revealing someone’s private information publicly, usually via the internet.

This has prompted a number of warnings from senior politicians across Europe and the US over what appears to be a moderation policy driven by Musk’s personal preferences. In Brussels, officials have warned the Twitter owner that the company could face sanctions “soon” after the move.

European Commissioner Vera Jourova said that the suspensions were “worrying” and that EU law protects media freedom. The commissioner, who is the European Commission’s vice-president for values and transparency, wrote on Twitter: “EU’s Digital Services Act requires respect of media freedom and fundamental rights. This is reinforced under our Media Freedom Act. Elon Musk should be aware of that. There are red lines. And sanctions, soon.”

The accounts suspended include those of journalists from The Independent, the New York Times and the Washington Post. All the accounts were suspended on Thursday (15 December) evening. They had all recently published information from a Twitter account that tracked the real-time location of Elon Musk’s private jet, which has also been suspended.

Separately, the Twitter account for rival platform, Mastodon, has been suspended, and users have reported that links to the emerging competitor have been blocked on Twitter. The technology journalist Rory Cellan-Jones tweeted: “Confirming that Twitter is blocking Mastodon links. Isn’t that anticompetitive behaviour?”

Musk entered his role as Twitter’s new chief with the promise of being absolutely committed to free speech, and initially stated that an example of such policy was his refusal to suspend the account providing live updates on his private jet’s location. However, the 51 year old’s position now appears to have changed.

Appearing on a Twitter Space on Thursday evening, Musk said: “As I’m sure everyone who’s been doxxed would agree, showing real time information about somebody’s location is inappropriate, and I think everyone on this call would not like that to be done to them.”

In a further follow-up tweet he stated: “Criticizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not.”

Why this matters

Musk’s concerns about his personal safety are arguably justified, and it does seem strange that someone would want to track an aircraft and post about it. Where the waters get murkier is the banning of journalists from Twitter.

It might be understandable that Musk is annoyed at journalists engaging with this information, but censoring them completely is an extremely heavy-handed punishment. Of course, it also goes against any notions of free speech that Musk is seemingly so keen to promote.

This has led to further worries that now Twitter is a private company, anybody who upsets Musk will see their access removed. At the moment, the Twitter owner is behaving more like a paranoid dictator than an advocate for open debate.

The fact that he appears to easily willing to swiftly block dissenting voices and rival websites from his platform sets a dangerous precedent. The question now is whether it gets Twitter into legal difficulties, and whether there will be another exodus of users in protest.