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This freelance journalist used Twitter to build his career. Then Elon Musk banned him

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As It Happens 6:42 This freelance journalist used Twitter to build his career. Then Elon Musk banned him

A freelance journalist who has been banned from Twitter says it’s the kind of thing that could negatively affect his livelihood.

Over the last few days, Elon Musk’s Twitter has been permanently suspending the accounts of journalists from prominent news organizations like the New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post, as well as the account of rival social media company Mastodon.

Twitter hasn’t given an official explanation for the bans. But the one thing they all have in common is that they have linked to, or reported on, a now suspended account that tracks the billionaire CEO’s private jet using publicly available data.

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Ahead of the bans, Twitter changed its terms of service to prohibit the sharing of a person’s current location without their consent. Musk said on Twitter that anyone sharing “real-time location info of anyone” would be suspended, and that he was taking legal action against the college student who runs the jet-tracking account @ElonJet.

This is an about-face for the Musk. When he first took over Twitter, he promised to crack down on what he saw as censorship on the social media platform. Last month, he tweeted: “My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk.”

Tony Webster, a freelance journalist based in Wyoming, recently posted a tweet letting his followers know that Twitter was preventing users from linking to the jet-tracking account’s Facebook and Instagram pages. Soon after, his account was permanently suspended. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

When did you find out that your account had been banned? 

I found out last night. So it was, you know, a day following what I posted, and I was scrolling through Twitter and I saw that other journalists were being banned from Twitter. And I went to retweet a journalist posting about another journalist being banned, when I got an error message.

I just immediately knew what happened. I refreshed the page, and I said that I, too, had been permanently suspended from Twitter.

What did you think in that moment? 

It’s both surprising and not. I mean, I want to be sensitive to the concerns that Elon Musk has expressed about his safety. Everyone wants safety. At the same time, reporting on issues of public importance, such as actions that Elon Musk is taking on Twitter in terms of his new moderation policies, it’s important for people to know what’s happening.

I think that it’s important for the public to be able to get the full picture of what’s going on at Twitter. And if anyone who’s talking about it in journalism gets banned and loses their account, that’s a problem for the free speech that Elon has promised.

@TonyWebster tweets: "Twitter has now blocked the ability of a user to link to the @ElonJet Instagram account" and "Linking to ElonJet on Facebook is also now blocked on Twitter." Each tweet contains a screenshot showing a failed attempt to tweet links to those pages. A notification from Twitter: "Your account is permanently suspended."
Webster’s account was permanently suspended after he tweeted screenshots showing that the social media company was preventing users from sharing links to @ElonJet’s Facebook and Instagram pages. (Submitted by Tony Webster)

Musk says a tweet that was tracking a plane ultimately led to someone stalking his son. Elon Musk does own Twitter, though, as you know. So what responsibility does he have to balance those safety concerns, but also uphold freedom of speech that he says Twitter is all about?

Of course, he’s the decider. You know, he’s the chief Twit, I think is the title he gave himself.

I think the real concern here is that Twitter over the years has become the heartbeat of news and society. And he came in saying that there were problems. I think a lot of people think there were problems at Twitter. And he said he was going to fix that and be an ardent supporter of free speech. It does seem that he’s reversed course on that.

Elon Musk has said that he was supportive of less mainstream journalism…. I’m not really feeling that kind of support right now.– Tony Webster, freelance journalist

You’re in the company of journalists working at the New York Times, the Washington Post [and] CNN as well. They’ve also been banned from Twitter. Why do you think Twitter chose to put you on that list as a freelancer? 

I tweeted about this happening and a few of my tweets had gotten embedded in big news stories. They were shared widely. I have to believe that that just likely brought the spotlight on me, unfortunately, because there were a lot of people talking about this issue and not everyone has been banned.

I think what everyone’s looking for is a clear definition of what are the rules. You can’t just ban people when they don’t know what the rules are. And I don’t think that anyone wishes there to be harm. I think he has raised an interesting issue on the flight-tracking thing. I think that’s something that’s worth a conversation — you know, maybe talk to Congress or whatever his solution is there. But just banning people doesn’t actually solve any problem.

@ElonMusk, Dec. 14: 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. Last night, car carrying lil X in LA was followed by crazy stalker (thinking it was me), who later blocked car from moving & climbed onto hood. Legal action is being taken against Sweeney & organizations who supported harm to my family.
Elon Musk says anyone ‘doxxing real-time location info’ will be suspended, and that a ‘crazy stalker’ followed a car his son was in. He says he has taken legal against Jack Sweeney, the U.S. college student who runs an account tracking Musk’s private jet. (@ElonMusk/Twitter)

Taking you off that platform, does that impact the work you do and your livelihood? 

Absolutely. You know, I don’t have the backing of a huge news organization. I’m freelance, and I have built up a following over the years reporting on issues of policing and civil rights and elections issues. And that’s just all gone overnight.

Elon Musk has said that he was supportive of less mainstream journalism, more independent voices. And I think that’s a great idea. I’m not really feeling that kind of support right now.

I did sign up for Mastodon recently. Mastodon is a more, like, decentralized Twitter. And overnight I got, you know, 16,000 followers just from people knowing about this happening to me. So I think, ultimately, it’s good if there’s more diversity in where people can share their news and reporting and communication with friends. But I’m hopeful that things will reverse course at Twitter.

@ElonMusk: My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk.
In November, Musk promised not to ban the account that uses publicly available information to track the whereabouts of his jet. (@ElonMusk/Twitter)

So you found another outlet, but it sounds like if you were allowed back on Twitter, you’d keep using it?

I wouldn’t delete my account. But there would have to be some major changes. I fear right now that these decisions are being made arbitrarily and impulsively. And I don’t know how anyone can feel comfortable, whether you’re a journalist or not, spending more time on Twitter, investing more time and building relationships there, if it can all just be taken away in a moment with no process, with no warning.

Is there really a place for this platform — or a need for it — now? 

You look across the media landscape and small news outlets have been shutting down left and right. And people in their community have been stepping up and live-tweeting city council meetings, and they’ve been keeping their communities informed. I think it’s important that there’s an outlet to be able to do that and to discover people doing that in your community.

Ultimately, like, does that have to happen on Twitter? No.

One thing that I think is good that has sprung out of all of this is a lot of people are now looking at diversifying where they share connections with people online. And I think that is ultimately a really good outcome.

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