When Twitter abruptly suspended the accounts of several prominent journalists Thursday night — in response to a baffling claim from new owner Elon Musk that they had endangered his safety — media bosses were quick to speak out in protest.
But without exception, these media organizations kept using Twitter to promote their latest stories. Their official accounts tweeted at their usual busy paces Thursday night and into Saturday, when Musk allowed some of the suspended journalists to return.
Musk justified the suspensions by accusing the reporters of posting “basically assassination coordinates” for him and his family — a reference, apparently, to their reporting and tweets about Twitter’s decision to suspend an account, @ElonJet, that had been using public flight data to share the location of Musk’s private plane.
The Post could find no evidence that the reporters in question had shared information about Musk or his family’s location.
Early Saturday, after conducting an informal poll of Twitter users, Musk said suspensions would be lifted immediately for “accounts who doxxed my location,” and several reporters’ accounts reappeared. Still, the reaction epitomized the conflicted, and seemingly codependent, relationship between the news media and social media.
In the 15 years since sites like Twitter and Facebook exploded in popularity, traditional news outlets have resolved to see them as much of an opportunity as a threat — potent new vectors for delivering the news directly to the screens of avid readers. Publishers have invested heavily in staff whose primary role is to fine-tune and promote stories over social media; editors prize journalists who have amassed tens of thousands of Twitter followers for the traffic they can bring to their sites.
Some managers have started to question whether Twitter traffic is actually worth the effort. Yet the modest response Friday to a maneuver that drew widespread rebukes from free-speech advocates — as well as from the European Commission, United Nations and members of Congress — suggest that they won’t be quitting it soon.
“How [else] are they going to get the word out? Sadly, Twitter is still the only real game in town,” said Vivian Schiller, a former president of NPR who also served as Twitter’s head of news in 2014. “Don’t get me wrong, Musk is a thin-skinned erratic hypocrite, but he’s got us over a barrel,” she added, until another social media platform comes along to rival it.
At least nine journalists, including Washington Post technology reporter Drew Harwell and New York Times journalist Ryan Mac, were hit with the suspensions, which the American Civil Liberties Union said were “impossible to square with Twitter’s free speech aspirations.”
Early Saturday, some of those accounts had returned, but other journalists remained locked out.
“I don’t know why I was suspended,” Linette Lopez of Business Insider told The Post on Friday, “and I haven’t heard anything from Twitter.” Lopez noted that she had not written or tweeted about the controversy over Musk’s flight data but that she had shared court documents pointing out how Musk had harassed critics and revealed personal information about them in the past. Her account was still suspended early Saturday.
Harwell got a message from Twitter early Saturday morning, offering to reactivate his account if he deleted the tweet that had apparently upset Musk, which noted Twitter had suspended the account of a competing social media platform called Mastodon.
“Twitter just suspended a competitor’s account (@joinmastodon) because it posted a link to its own website’s version of @ElonJet — public, legally acquired data that Twitter decided two days ago was against the rules,” Harwell had tweeted Thursday evening, half an hour before he was suspended. “Loving the free speech (h/t @mmasnick).” His tweet contained no private information or location data and no active links — but it included a screenshot that could have led Twitter users to the jet-tracking site’s account on Mastodon.
Harwell had not deleted the tweet as of late Saturday morning, and remained locked out of his account.
Freedom of speech has been a rallying cry for Musk, the billionaire owner of Tesla and SpaceX, since he first moved earlier this year to purchase Twitter and subsequently made a point of undoing many of the company’s previous policies against hate speech and misinformation, rolling back a nearly two-year ban of former president Donald Trump.
But even in conservative-leaning media, where Musk has been roundly praised for reinstating Trump and other right-wing accounts, the suspensions were not uniformly praised.
On Friday morning, some of the hosts of the conservative Fox News talk show “Fox & Friends” expressed bafflement. “This is crazy,” said co-host Brian Kilmeade. “If they were just being critical of [Musk], he’s got to explain why those people were suspended,” said co-host Steve Doocy.
Ben Shapiro, founding editor in chief of the Daily Wire, admitted to some “schadenfreude” about journalists complaining about the move “given their enthusiasm for opaque Twitter censorship” — but seemed to take issue with Musk’s argument that the suspended journalists had actually “doxed” his location. Fox News personality and radio host Dan Bongino said on his show that he disapproved of censoring or suspending journalists’ accounts and said it could have the effect of just giving them more attention.
Some of the firmest criticism of Musk’s decision came from an ally.
“The old regime at Twitter governed by its own whims and biases and it sure looks like the new regime has the same problem,” tweeted Bari Weiss, a former opinion writer for the New York Times. “I oppose it in both cases. And I think those journalists who were reporting on a story of public importance should be reinstated.”
Weiss is one of the writers recently tapped by Musk to helm his “Twitter Files” project, in which he has aired internal Twitter documents about content moderation, as part of his larger campaign to demonstrate that the company’s previous management dealt unfairly with conservative news site sand accounts.
Despite Musk’s claim last month that Twitter is the “biggest click driver on the internet by far,” one recent study from social-analytics company DataReportal found that it was responsible for less than 8 percent of total social media referrals for the month of November 2021.
Media organizations typically do not share detailed data on their web traffic. But a 2016 report using data from the social-analytics firm Parse.ly found that only 1.5 percent of publisher traffic came from Twitter. “Twitter has outsized influence,” concluded a report from Nieman Lab, “but it doesn’t drive much traffic for most news orgs.”
Meanwhile, media managers have struggled with how to establish standards of behavior for their journalists on social media, where the temptation can be to slip into feistier, or more casual, or more opinionated conversation than would be allowed in their own professional writing — or to tailor their stories for their particular Twitter audiences.
“The really insidious part of Twitter is that it’s very easy for even very good journalists to mistake the reaction that they’re getting on Twitter for the impact or the reaction that their reporting or that their work in general is getting,” said Joseph Kahn, executive editor of the New York Times, in an interview with The Post in June.
Now, the unpredictability of Twitter under Musk’s ownership is further complicating the equation for media bosses.
“It’s a battle between the reputational impact of supporting a volatile platform that is simultaneously reinstating dangerous accounts while censoring legitimate journalists, and a journalistic responsibility to remain active to counterbalance rampant misinformation and disinformation,” said one network executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
There’s precedent for leaving Twitter: Fox News let its official account go silent from November 2018 to March 2020, reportedly over concerns that a photo with host Tucker Carlson’s home address had been shared on the platform. According to metrics released by the network, it had no negative impact on Fox’s web traffic.
In mid-November, CBS News stepped away from Twitter for two days; a staffer said the company was concerned that it no longer had an official liaison to help with security issues after a major employee exodus under Musk.
For a brief moment on Friday, it appeared that one news organization was preparing a boycott of sorts, when the New York Times announced that it was canceling a discussion to be held on Twitter’s “Spaces” that day about the best books of the year.
Instead, a spokesperson for the Times clarified that the decision was made for “technical reasons.”
This story has been updated with new information about suspended accounts.