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Twitter owner Elon Musk suspends the accounts of several high-profile journalists

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Elon Musk is a loud and self-professed champion of free speech. Last night, though, he suspended the accounts of several journalists from major news outlets.

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Their offense - tweeting out publicly available information about the location of private planes used by Musk and his family.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn joins us now with more. Bobby, it's been quite a ride for Twitter the last few months. How did we get here?

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah, it really has been. So there's a bit of a history here. You know, a long time thorn in the side of Elon Musk has been this account known as @ElonJet. And it tracks, as you mentioned, the flight activity of Musk's private jets using publicly available information. It's run by this 20-year-old University of Florida student who loves aviation. Well, Musk offered him $5,000 to shut it down, and he refused. That was before Musk owned Twitter. Now that Musk does own Twitter, he decided to crack down. Musk has suspended the account. He changed Twitter policy, saying live information about someone's travel is basically doxxing. But things really took a shocking turn, A, when Musk last night suspended the accounts of about half a dozen high-profile journalists for simply writing about @ElonJet or tweeting links to it.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So, I mean, it's kind of surprising - right? - that's what got those journalists suspended.

ALLYN: Yeah, exactly. And so Twitter says the journalists will be suspended for seven days and that future violators of this policy will face a similar fate. But, look, it's important to emphasize here that these journalists didn't have some kind of special surveilling powers, right? There were - the journalists were writing about an account that tracked Musk's jets, right? It started and ended with airports. We just knew what cities he or his jets were visiting. But Musk says that was enough to send what he described as a, quote, "crazy stalker" chasing after a car that one of his kids was riding in. Musk hasn't backed up the allegation with any documentation, but that is what he cited.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So how have press freedom advocates responded to all this?

ALLYN: They are extremely alarmed. Jameel Jaffer, who heads the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said, you know, it's disturbing, especially for someone who styles himself a champion of free speech. Other press advocates said it sets a dangerous precedent - right? - having this powerful billionaire who controls what's basically the front page of the internet banning journalists based on a personal animus.

MARTÍNEZ: So what do you think, Bobby? I mean, do we all have to sit now and be worried about retweeting something and all of a sudden get suspended somehow? Is that how it's going to work?

ALLYN: I guess so, A. I mean, the big lesson here is Twitter policy is written at the whim of Elon Musk, right? And that can mean professional journalists like you and I trying to do our jobs - you know, I'm a tech reporter. I cover Elon and cover Twitter. Maybe one day, I'll be caught in the middle and be suspended, right? I mean, his rules are arbitrary and constantly moving. They're hard to keep up with. And another lesson here, I think, is increasingly Twitter is just becoming a place that is openly hostile to journalists. I mean, Musk has long been at war with the media, but silencing high-profile journalists for linking to publicly available information about his private jets I think is really a new low point in Musk's relationship with the media.

MARTÍNEZ: How does the line go - retweets are not an endorsement because they might get suspended or something like that?

ALLYN: (Laughter) Exactly.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. That's NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks.

ALLYN: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.