Amid a strong reaction both around the world and within the US, Elon Musk restored the Twitter accounts of several journalists on Saturday.
However, Musk opted to cite the poll results, which he conducted on Twitter, as the reason behind his decision.
“The people have spoken. Accounts who doxxed my location will have their suspension lifted now,” Musk said in a tweet.
The reinstatements came after the unprecedented suspensions evoked stinging criticism from government officials, advocacy groups and journalism organizations from several parts of the globe on Friday.
Some of them said the microblogging platform was jeopardizing press freedom while officials from France, Germany, Britain and the European Union earlier condemned the suspensions.
The episode, which one well known security researcher labeled the “Thursday Night Massacre,” is being regarded by critics as fresh evidence of Musk, who considers himself a “free speech absolutist,” eliminating speech and users he personally dislikes.
The move had also damaged him financially as shares in Tesla slumped 4.7 percent on Friday and posted their worst weekly loss since March 2020, with investors increasingly concerned about his being distracted and about the slowing global economy.
Roland Lescure, the French minister of industry, tweeted on Friday that, following Musk’s suspension of journalists, he would suspend his own activity on Twitter.
Melissa Fleming, head of communications for the United Nations, tweeted she was “deeply disturbed” by the suspensions and that “media freedom is not a toy.”
“A free press is the cornerstone of democratic societies and a key tool in the fight against harmful disinformation,” she added.
EU threatened sanctions
But the strongest reaction was from Vera Jourova, the European Commission’s vice president for values and transparency. She said in a tweet that news of the “arbitrary suspension of journalists on Twitter is worrying”, as she talked about possible sanctions.
She said EU’s Digital Services Act required respect of media freedom and fundamental rights. Elon Musk should be aware of that. “There are red lines. And sanctions, soon.”
Jourova didn’t add any further details on the sanctions. Under the EU’s Digital Services Act, companies can be fined up to 6 percent of their global annual revenues for breaches.
The Digital Services Act, which entered into force on Nov 16, requires large platforms to reduce harms online, implement protections for users’ rights and issue transparency reports.
Big Tech platforms are required to report the number of active end users they have to the Commission by February 2023. They then have until four months after the bloc completes reviews of the numbers to comply with the rules.
The Tesla and SpaceX boss, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” has troubled politicians and civil liberties activists with steps to restore the accounts of banned users, including former US President Donald Trump, and the laying off of thousands of Twitter’s employees.
Musk – who is serving as Twitter’s CEO since October after buying the company for $44 billion – is certainly finding it difficult to manage the social media platform due to his dictatorial tendencies and leaning towards far-right.
Reaction was worldwide
Joining the list of critics, the German Foreign Office tweeted screenshots on Friday of the accounts of journalists suspended by Twitter, telling the social media platform that suspending their accounts was unacceptable.
“Press freedom cannot be switched on and off on a whim,” the ministry wrote on its official Twitter page. “The journalists below can no longer follow us, comment and criticize. We have a problem with that.”
“Arbitrary locking of journalists’ accounts is unacceptable,” tweeted deputy government spokesperson Wolfgang Buechner, threatening to leave the platform should the policy continue.
European leaders previously said they were watching how Musk’s takeover of Twitter would affect the platform. Thierry Breton, a top EU official, warned Musk in late November that the social media platform must take significant steps to comply with the bloc’s content moderation laws.
“Twitter will have to implement transparent user policies, significantly reinforce content moderation and protect freedom of speech, tackle disinformation with resolve, and limit targeted advertising,” Breton said at the time. “All of this requires sufficient AI and human resources, both in volumes and skills. I look forward to progress in all these areas and we will come to assess Twitter’s readiness on site.”
A spokesperson for the United Nations said it was “very disturbed by the arbitrary suspension” of journalist accounts on Twitter, warning that the company’s actions have set “a dangerous precedent” amid rising threats to press freedom around the world.
Similarly, Jodie Ginsberg, president of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the organization was “deeply alarmed” by the move and called on Twitter to “immediately restore these reporters’ accounts.”
Meanwhile, many Democratic lawmakers in the United States took Musk to task. New York Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she understood Musk’s feelings of vulnerability as a public figure, “but descending into abuse of power + erratically banning journalists only increases the intensity around you.”
She added that “Take a beat and lay off the proto-fascism” and “Journalism is supposed to speak truth to power, not bow to it.”
What did it start?
Twitter suspended the accounts of more than a half-dozen journalists who had been writing about the company and its new owner.
Some journalists had been tweeting about Twitter shutting down an account @ElonJet that tracked flights of the billionaire’s private jet and about versions of that account hosted on other social networks.
Twitter did not say why the reporters’ accounts were suspended. “Nothing says free speech like suspending journalists who cover you,” Sarah Reese Jones of the news commentary website PoliticusUSA said in a tweeted response to posts about the suspensions.
The move was in complete contrast with Musk’s tall claims about championing the cause of freedom of expression.
In an earlier tweet, he had, however, made his intentions clear by describing the liberal circles as “woke mind virus” that needs to be defeated.
Checks on Twitter showed account suspensions included reporters from CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post as well as independent journalists.
An account for Twitter rival Mastodon was also suspended, according to a report by NBCNews.
Musk on Wednesday tweeted that a car in Los Angeles carrying one of his children was followed by “a crazy stalker” and seemed to blame the tracking of his jet for this alleged incident. In the tweet, he said legal action is being taken against the person who ran ElonJet.
The Twitter account that tracked flights of Musk’s private jet was shut down Wednesday despite the billionaire’s statement that he is a free speech absolutist.
“Well it appears @ElonJet is suspended,” creator Jack Sweeney tweeted from his @JxckSweeney account, which was subsequently suspended as well.
Twitter later sent out word that it updated its policy to prohibit tweets, in most cases, from giving away someone´s location in real-time.
“Any account doing real-time location info of anyone will be suspended, as it is a physical safety violation,” Musk said in a tweet. “This includes posting links to sites with real-time location info.”
Doxxing refers to revealing identifying information such as home address or phone number online, typically to target someone for abuse.
Tweets sharing a person’s location that are “not same-day” are allowed under the tweaked policy, as are posts about being at a public event such as a concert, Twitter said.
Sweeney attracted attention with his Twitter account that tracks the movements of Musk’s plane and even rejected Musk’s offer of $5,000 to shut down @ElonJet, which had hundreds of thousands of followers.
Musk had gone public saying he would not touch the account after buying Twitter in a $44 billion deal as part of his commitment to free speech on the platform.
Flight-following websites and several Twitter accounts offer real-time views of air traffic, but that exposure draws pushback ranging from complaints to equipment seizures.
US rules require planes in designated areas to be equipped with ADS-B technology that broadcasts aircraft positions using signals that relatively simple devices can pick up.