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Experts say Musk’s suspension of journalists’ Twitter accounts sets ‘dangerous precedent’


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

December 16, 2022 | 10 min read

Concerns about unclear and inconsistent platform rules grow amid Musk’s accusations of doxxing and decision to ban journalists.

Man with birdcage head with blue bird inside cage

Musk is throwing journalists into Twitter jail – to the objection of many users / Adobe Stock

In the latest drama following Elon Musk’s controversy-riddled takeover of Twitter in late October, the platform on Thursday night suspended the accounts of a handful of prominent journalists who cover Musk and Twitter.

Those barred from the platform include The New York Times’ Ryan Mac, The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell, CNN’s Donnie O’Sullivan, The Intercept’s Micah Lee, Mashable’s Matt Binder, Business Insider's Linette Lopez, sports and political commentator Keith Olbermann and independent journalists Aaron Rupar and Tony Webster.

When visiting a suspended journalist’s account, users are met with a message saying that “Twitter suspends accounts that violate the Twitter rules.” The company has not clarified which rules in particular were violated by suspended users.

The decision came mere hours after Musk reversed course on a previous decision to keep an account that tracks the activity of his private plane instated. Instead, the platform yesterday suspended more than 25 accounts that track the activity of government planes and private planes owned by the uber-wealthy. One such account, operated by college student Jack Sweeney, relied on publicly-accessible data to post updates on Musk’s plane, among others, per reports by The New York Times.

However, Musk has taken to Twitter to make allegations that he’s been put in danger by such accounts. Yesterday he tweeted: “Criticizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not.” He also said that “legal action is being taken against Sweeney.”

Musk had previously said in a November tweet that his “commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane,” despite the decision being what he dubbed “a direct personal safety risk.”

He switched his tune this week after he alleged that a car carrying his two-and-a-half year-old son X Æ A-12 was tailed by a stalker who believed they were following Musk. The billionaire tweeted: “Any account doxxing real-time location info of anyone will be suspended, as it is a physical safety violation. This includes posting links to sites with real-time location info. Posting locations someone traveled to on a slightly delayed basis isn’t a safety problem, so is ok.” (In an ironic move, Musk then shared a video of the alleged stalker depicting a man’s face and the license plate of a vehicle, asking if anyone recognized the person or the car).

The storm commences

The decision to bar journalists and plane-tracking accounts from the platform resulted in immediate and damning backlash, with many pointing out the apparent hypocrisy of the move in light of Musk’s highly vocal advocacy for free speech and lax content moderation. Many are especially aggravated considering that Sweeney and other accounts relied primarily on publicly-available data (and therefore the accusation that they are “doxxing” Musk seems to go too far).

Users appear even more frustrated with the decision to ban journalists – many are demanding that Twitter clarify which if any platform rules have been broken. Kylie Robison, a tech reporter at Fortune, said in a tweet that she has spoken with Twitter employees who also feel “in the dark” about the reasons for the decision.

“It's really irresponsible to cancel those journalists' accounts with no justification – especially after Musk has been such a proponent for free speech,” says Katie Lance, a leading social media consultant. “As a private company, they aren't required to disclose rules and company decisions, but this feels very much like a personal decision by Musk to silence those who have opposed him or have written negative things about him.”

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New complications to brand safety on Twitter

But the implications of recent account suspensions go beyond basic platform rules. Considering that much of the debate centers on content moderation, advertisers are also likely to be affected by the decision.

As Jasmine Enberg, a principal analyst at Insider Intelligence’s eMarketer specializing in social media, puts it: “It sets a dangerous precedent for content moderation on Twitter under Musk. Not only does it give advertisers another reason to think twice about spending on the platform, brands now have to be mindful of even having a presence on Twitter.”

The warning comes at a time when Twitter has already lost about half of its top 100 advertisers in the wake of Musk’s takeover, per data from nonprofit watchdog Media Matters. Leading advertising holding companies including IPG and Havas have advised brands to cease spending on the platform.

Advertisers’ wariness stems largely from brand safety concerns; with looser restrictions under Musk, brands can’t risk their messages ending up alongside unsavory and unsafe content. Other developments, including the reinstatement of controversial, formerly-banned accounts (including that of former US president Donald Trump), widespread resignations and layoffs have further spooked advertisers.

“The exodus of all types of brands from Twitter is a resounding rejection of Musk’s ‘wild west’ version of Twitter where anything goes,” says Ed East, chief executive and co-founder of global influencer agency Billion Dollar Boy. “The problem for brands is the increased risk that their content appears next to unethical user-generated content.”

Those concerns are nothing new. East points out that YouTube faced backlash in the past for hosting ads on videos featuring extremist views. The algorithm was largely to blame, and the platform - facing the threat of lost ad revenues - quickly remedied the problem.

Now, East argues, Musk should take a cue and reassure brands who are getting – or have already gotten – cold feet. He believes that Musk would do well to spend fewer resources on trying to shift the platform toward a subscription-based service (via Twitter Blue) and rather focus on inviting advertising dollars back to Twitter with a stricter approach to content moderation. “If Elon is worried about Twitter’s business model and the sustainability of its revenue streams long-term, he would do better to focus less on subscriptions and more on creating a brand-safe environment where content is properly moderated,” he says.

A moment of reckoning for advertisers

Advertisers pulling back from Twitter are already eyeing other platforms, including TikTok, Mastodon, Reddit and LinkedIn. East warns that Musk’s decision to employ rules somewhat inconsistently will only deter advertisers further – creating a perfect opportunity for competing platforms to swoop in and clinch valuable ad spend. “There are plenty of other platforms – some of which have recently posted underwhelming performance figures – who will gladly welcome those brands that have left Twitter and may be looking to place their ad spend elsewhere. Instagram, for example, has just launched its Notes feature, which replicates some of Twitter’s USP – a thinly-veiled attempt to steal some market share.”

Ultimately, it’s the lack of both clarity and consistency that’s freaking out advertisers, says East. Without clear and explicit publishing guidelines and uniform modes of enforcement, brands won’t want to risk engaging.

It’s a sentiment echoed by other experts in the field. Matt Voda, the chief executive officer at ad measurement platform OptiMine, says Musk’s decision to ban journalists this week “only serves to reinforce brands' fears about Twitter becoming a platform of chaos, a place lacking transparency around its controls and content moderation rules… and all of the risks associated with these issues.” The banning of some accounts and not others “undermines brands' confidence in fundamental ways,” he says.

Ultimately, Musk’s Twitter, Voda says, has a trust problem. “The calculus goes beyond simply content moderation to consider aspects such as predictability, operating stability and a firm and transparent set of guidelines and rules that all sum up to equal ‘trust.’ And right now, Twitter is bleeding trust instead of rebuilding it.”

Billion Dollar Boy’s East predicts more brands will be headed for the door, barring drastic changes. And it’s a slippery slope for Twitter’s future. “This could be highly damaging for Twitter," East says. "It’s much harder to attract brands and restore their faith in a platform than to retain them. The loss of any more brands will spook investors and key stakeholders, damaging the platforms’ own reputation and its market value.”

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