Elon Musk’s decision to abruptly suspend several journalists from Twitter sparked an outcry on Friday from First Amendment advocates, threats of sanctions from European regulators, and questions about the social media platform’s future as a gathering place for news and ideas.
But as people debated complex, novel issues of free speech and online censorship, the move also underscored the role of a simpler, more enduring element of American life: the press baron.
Hello, Citizen Musk.
As with William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch before him, Mr. Musk now controls an influential means of mass media production. Twitter, albeit a different beast from newspapers and TV networks, enticed journalists by promoting itself as a virtual town square. Now Mr. Musk, despite his stated wish “that even my worst critics remain on Twitter,” is flexing his ownership muscle in seemingly arbitrary ways, appearing to stamp out accounts that personally displease him.
The suspensions — which included reporters from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post — were brief. Many of the accounts were reactivated late Friday, after Mr. Musk conducted an informal survey of Twitter users on the issue.
Twitter had suspended the journalists after Mr. Musk accused them of breaking Twitter’s rules on violating personal privacy. Twitter had recently shut down an account, @ElonJet, that tracked the whereabouts of Mr. Musk’s private plane using publicly available flight data, after Mr. Musk claimed that a “crazy stalker” accosted a car in which one of his sons was traveling.
“You’re not special because you’re a journalist; you’re a citizen, so no special treatment,” Mr. Musk told reporters during a terse Twitter audio session on Thursday. He added, using a term for publishing intrusive personal information, “You doxx, you get suspended, end of story.”
Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter
But it was not obvious how the journalists suspended by Mr. Musk had violated Twitter’s policies. Some of the reporters had written about the removal of @ElonJet and other accounts that tracked private planes, or linked to those accounts; some had previously written critical stories about Mr. Musk’s stewardship of Twitter. On Friday, Twitter suspended the account of Linette Lopez, a reporter who has published investigations into Tesla, another company controlled by Mr. Musk.
As recently as last month, Mr. Musk said that @ElonJet would be allowed to remain on Twitter. He said the promise demonstrated “my commitment to free speech,” a common refrain for Mr. Musk, who has amassed millions of online fans in part by presenting himself as a First Amendment absolutist, determined to root out supposed biases on the part of Twitter’s previous management.
Journalists’ participation on Twitter, a privately controlled company, is not tantamount to free speech; reporters are free to publish their work on their own companies’ platforms and through other social media outlets.
For more than a decade, however, Twitter has occupied a unique role in the news and information ecosystem, where journalists flock to share their reporting, develop relationships with sources, and debate issues of the day. It has also allowed writers outside of established organizations to break into the political and cultural conversations.
In the wake of Mr. Musk’s suspensions, media outlets said that Twitter had acted arbitrarily in ways that may serve to intimidate journalists who report on his companies. “If confirmed as retaliation for their work, this would be a serious violation of journalists’ right to report the news without fear of reprisal,” Jodie Ginsberg, president of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said on Friday. CNN called the suspensions “impulsive and unjustified,” and The New York Times described the moves as “questionable.”
There was also backlash from lawmakers in the European Union. Vera Jourova, a vice president of the European Commission, said the move violated the E.U.’s Digital Services Act and its Media Freedom Act, which serves as a kind of rule book for moderating online content. “There are red lines. And sanctions, soon,” she tweeted on Friday.
Mr. Musk firmly rejected those criticisms. He mocked journalists for crying foul, arguing that the actions taken by Twitter under its previous owners — like the restriction of posts linking to a 2020 New York Post report about Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son, Hunter — had amounted to censorship of conservative viewpoints.
“So inspiring to see the newfound love of freedom of speech by the press,” Mr. Musk wrote in a Twitter post, implying that the reporters upset about the suspensions did not speak out when Twitter restricted certain posts about Covid and presidential politics that the platform had deemed misinformation.
Mr. Musk also has supporters in Silicon Valley C-suites, where many tech founders and investors are watching his unorthodox management of Twitter with excitement, not disdain. These executives believe that Mr. Musk’s head-on clashes with his critics, like dissenting workers and skeptical journalists, may offer a future model for tech leaders tired of ceding power to internal and external detractors.
This week’s drama landed in a broader discussion over the role of social media platforms in deciding what ideas circulate online. Mr. Musk, who did not respond to a request for comment, is a happy warrior in that debate; it motivated his release this month of the so-called Twitter Files, a trove of internal documents that he said shed light on Twitter’s past content moderation decisions.
“The old regime at Twitter governed by its own whims and biases and it sure looks like the new regime has the same problem,” said Ms. Weiss, a former opinion writer and editor at The Times who is the founder of an independent media site, The Free Press. “I oppose it in both cases. And I think those journalists who were reporting on a story of public importance should be reinstated.”
Mr. Musk seemed unimpressed with Ms. Weiss’s take; in a Twitter reply, he accused her of “virtue-signaling to show that you are ‘good’ in the eyes of media elite to keep one foot in both worlds.”
It was unclear if Mr. Musk might eventually reverse course and restore the accounts of the suspended journalists. On Friday, Mr. Musk asked his 121 million followers to vote on when accounts might be reinstated; as of Friday evening, nearly 60 percent of respondents had voted “now.” The counting was set to run for several more hours.
This week’s developments left some reporters, not for the first time, wondering if Twitter’s days as the media’s preferred social platform are numbered, and if journalists ought to consider alternatives.
Naturally, the discussion played out on Twitter, with Mr. Musk, as usual, a highly active participant. In a string of posts on Friday, Mr. Musk — who, like any proud press baron, keeps a close watch on his platform — cracked jokes, defended his positions, and needled his critics. He highlighted a user’s post asserting that Twitter now had “more attention, press and power than ever,” replying with an approving emoji of a bull’s-eye.
Citizen Musk appeared to be enjoying himself.
Bernhard Warner and Kate Conger contributed reporting.