Twitter suspended the accounts of more than half a dozen journalists from CNN, the New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets Thursday evening, as company owner Elon Musk accused the reporters of posting “basically assassination coordinates” for him and his family.
The suspensions came without warning or initial explanation from Twitter. They took place a day after Twitter changed its policy on sharing “live location information” and suspended an account, @ElonJet, that had been using public flight data to share the location of Musk’s private plane.
Many of the journalists suspended Thursday, including Washington Post technology reporter Drew Harwell, had been covering that rule change, as well as Musk’s claims that he and his family had been endangered by location sharing.
Twitter did not directly respond to questions about the suspensions. But Musk suggested on Twitter, without evidence, that the journalists had revealed private information about his family, known as doxing. “Criticizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not,” he tweeted late Thursday.
Harwell, whose most recent stories covered the ban of @ElonJet and the rise of baseless claims on Twitter, discovered he was unable to log into his account or tweet around 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
“Harwell was banished from Twitter without warning, process or explanation, following the publications of his accurate reporting about Musk,” The Post’s executive editor Sally Buzbee said in a statement. “Our journalist should be reinstated immediately.”
At least eight other journalists were suspended the same evening, including New York Times technology reporter Ryan Mac.
CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan was suspended shortly after posting a tweet about Musk’s claim that a “crazy stalker” had chased his young son in Los Angeles, according to screenshots.
Matt Binder, a Mashable reporter, was tweeting about O’Sullivan’s suspension when his account also went dark.
Independent journalist Tony Webster’s account was also suspended as of Thursday evening. So were the accounts of former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann; Intercept reporter Micah Lee; Voice of America’s chief national correspondent Steve Herman; and Aaron Rupar, a Substack writer with nearly 800,000 followers on Twitter.
“It’s impossible to square Twitter’s free speech aspirations with the purging of critical journalists’ accounts,” American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. “The First Amendment protects Musk’s right to do this, but it’s a terrible decision. Their accounts should be restored immediately.”
The account bans were labeled “direction of Ella” in Twitter’s internal systems, according to two former employees in contact with Twitter’s staff. Ella Irwin, the company’s head of trust and safety, has carried out many of Musk’s orders since he purchased the company in late October and began upending its rules in the name of what he called “free speech.”
A prior suspension was marked “direction of Elon.”
this was the email that @elonmusk sent @drewharwell two days ago pic.twitter.com/tqqYnxLOQa— Steven Rich (@dataeditor) December 16, 2022
Irwin told the Verge: “Without commenting on any specific accounts, I can confirm that we will suspend any accounts that violate our privacy policies and put other users at risk.”
Musk tweeted late Thursday that the suspensions would last a week, although several of the reporters had been informed by Twitter they were banned permanently. Later that night, he took a Twitter poll on when he should reinstate the accounts — but restarted it after a plurality of respondents said he should do so immediately.
Musk also repeated his baseless allegation that the journalists had revealed private information about his family.
“Same doxxing rules apply to ‘journalists’ as to everyone else,” he wrote in another tweet. “They posted my exact real-time location, basically assassination coordinates.”
Around 11:30 p.m. Thursday, Musk joined a Twitter Spaces chat — essentially a public conference call — with several journalists, including some who had been banned, in which he reiterated his claim that they had “doxed” him.
The journalists challenged him on this.
“You’re suggesting that we’re sharing your address, which is not true,” said Harwell.
Musk retorted, “You posted a link to the address.”
Harwell replied, “In the course of reporting on @ElonJet, we posted a link to @ElonJet, which is now not online.”
Musk left the call abruptly about four minutes into it.
Musk purchased Twitter for $44 billion in late October, and quickly set about undoing many of the previous management’s policies against hate speech and misinformation. He has moved to restore former president Donald Trump and other accounts suspended under prior management, saying Twitter’s new policy is “freedom of speech but not freedom of reach.”
But Musk’s Twitter had already banned some high-profile accounts before Thursday’s apparent purge.
On Wednesday, @ElonJet was permanently suspended despite a tweet from Musk weeks earlier, saying he would keep it up as part of “my commitment to free speech.”
The same day, a new Twitter policy outlawed the sharing of “live location information, including information shared on Twitter directly or links to … travel routes, actual physical location, or other identifying information that would reveal a person’s location, regardless if this information is publicly available.”
Yet none of the tweets from suspended reporters that The Post has reviewed revealed the location of Musk or his family.
Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) wrote on Twitter Thursday night that her staff had met that same day with Twitter officials. “They told us that they’re not going to retaliate against independent journalists or researchers who publish criticisms of the platform. Less than 12 hours later, multiple technology reporters have been suspended.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists assailed the suspensions in a statement:
“We are concerned about news reports that journalists who have covered recent developments involving Twitter and its owner, Elon Musk, have had their accounts on the platform suspended. If confirmed as retaliation for their work, this would be a serious violation of journalists’ right to report the news without fear of reprisal.”
A spokesman for the New York Times called the suspensions “questionable and unfortunate” in a statement Thursday night.
“Neither The Times nor Ryan have received any explanation about why this occurred,” said Charlie Stadtlander. “We hope that all of the journalists’ accounts are reinstated and that Twitter provides a satisfying explanation for this action.”
In a company statement, CNN called the suspension of O’Sullivan and other reporters “impulsive and unjustified” and said that it had asked Twitter for an explanation. “We will reevaluate our relationship based on that response.”
Faiz Siddiqui, Joseph Menn and Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.