Throughout Elon Musk’s whirlwind Twitter ordeal, he has alluded to an apparent paranoia that he could be killed at any moment. In May, shortly after first agreeing to buy the company, he tweeted, “If I die under mysterious circumstances, it’s been nice knowin ya.” He doubled down on that suggestion this month, saying there was a “significant” chance he’d be an assassination target and that he might die in a foul play “suicide” conspiracy.
On Thursday night, this seeming fixation with an untimely demise become his chief justification for banning the Twitter accounts of several high-profile mainstream journalists, including CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, The New York Times’ Ryan Mac, and The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell. Musk accused the tech reporters of sharing “my exact real-time location, basically assassination coordinates,” which could be used to target him and his family. Keith Olbermann, Mashable’s Matt Binder, The Intercept’s Micah Lee, Voice of America’s Steve Herman, and Aaron Rupar were among the other prominent pundits, reporters, and popular Twitter users suspended last night as well.
The suspensions were largely rooted in journalists’ coverage of the now banned @ElonJet, a Twitter account that used publicly available flight records to update followers on where Musk’s private jet was flying. Harwell’s last tweet before getting banned was a newsy note that Twitter had also suspended the account of its competitor Mastodon due to it having tweeted a link to its own social media site’s version of @ElonJet. Harwell included a screenshot of the Mastodon tweet, adding a light jab at Musk’s change of heart around free speech. “Loving the free speech,” Harwell tweeted. Olbermann was suspended after calling on users to tweet out the same message as Harwell’s last tweet. Rupar, meanwhile, who had published a newsletter critical of Musk, acknowledged that he had also posted about @ElonJet, noting it was still active on Facebook.
Even though these tweets themselves did not reveal the location of Musk’s jet, simply reporting on the news of Twitter’s new content-moderation rules around the @ElonJet account was deemed in violation of the rules, per Musk. “Criticizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not,” wrote Musk on Thursday. Per Judd Legum, who writes the “Popular Information” newsletter, the link Rupar was given to appeal his suspension was broken.
Unsurprisingly, news outlets criticized Twitter for the suspensions. A spokesperson for the Times said the decision to ban Mac was “questionable and unfortunate.” A CNN spokesperson responded by stating that the network would potentially be reevaluating its relationship with the platform in light of the “impulsive and unjustified suspension of a number of reporters,” adding that “Twitter’s increasing instability and volatility should be of incredible concern for everyone who uses Twitter.”
Late Thursday night, Musk polled his followers—the same vox populi strategy he used to decide whether he should reinstate Donald Trump’s account—on when they believed the accounts should be reinstated. He gave the options of “now,” “tomorrow,” “7 days from now,” or “longer,” before adding, “If anyone posted real-time locations & addresses of NYT reporters, FBI would be investigating, there’d be hearings on Capitol Hill & Biden would give speeches about end of democracy!”
While it was obviously naive to believe that Musk would rule Twitter as the “free speech absolutist” he promised to be, the suspensions nonetheless came as a surprise to many, marking a massive change in the platform’s treatment of journalists who critically cover its owner.
In a Thursday night Twitter Space, the platform’s audio-chatroom feature, Musk spoke to a number of journalists confused by the moves, including the suspended Harwell, who, despite being suspended, was still able to use the platform’s chatroom. “You’re suggesting that we’re sharing your address, which is not true,” Harwell said, to which Musk inanely replied, “You posted a link to the address.” Harwell then explained that he only shared a link to the @ElonJet page, not the location information disseminated by the account. Musk abruptly exited the conversation.
Not long after the call, Twitter completely shuttered its Spaces feature—a temporary measure, Musk said, caused by maintenance on “a legacy bug.” He did not elaborate further, but BuzzFeed tech reporter Katie Notopoulos, who hosted the Space in question, learned of at least one relevant bug early Friday morning. “Someone told me that the reason suspended accounts can still join Spaces is because that feature is built on the old Periscope backend, and if an account is old enough to predate Periscope it treats it like a separate account from Twitter,” tweeted Notopoulos.