From free speech absolutism to unabated journalistic censorship: an open letter to Elon Musk

Cat Murphy, Associate News Editor

Once a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” Twitter CEO Elon Musk’s recent antics have reached a new all-time low: suspending the journalists who cover him.

The social media platform unexpectedly removed the accounts of seven journalists on Dec. 15, according to NPR. The list of suspended journalists included a New York Times technology reporter, a CNN journalist who covers the “intersection of politics and technology,” a Washington Post technology correspondent and several independent journalists. 

Although Musk’s attempts to quiet the journalists who cover him are not necessarily surprising, it is nevertheless important to call out his actions for exactly what they are: censorship. 

The Twitter account of rival social media platform Mastodon was also suspended on Dec. 15, after it tweeted about @ElonJet, an account dedicated to using publicly available flight data to track the movements of Musk’s private jet.

Run by a 20-year-old college freshman, the @ElonJet account was among more than two dozen jet-tracking accounts suspended by Twitter on Dec. 14, according to NPR. The accounts were purged from the platform shortly after a stalker allegedly followed a car carrying Musk’s child in Los Angeles.

“Criticizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not,” Musk wrote in a 9:20 p.m. tweet that he later pinned to his account.

I find it almost comical that Twitter removed the @ElonJet account just five weeks after Musk tweeted that his “commitment to free speech” included allowing the account to continue following his plane despite posing a “direct personal safety risk” to the Twitter CEO. 

Musk also tweeted in late April — and, notably, on the same day Twitter’s board voted to accept his $44 billion offer — that he hoped his “worst critics” remained on the platform “because that is what free speech means.”

However, Twitter appears to have levied suspensions against the growing numbers of journalists amid their recent coverage of the controversy surrounding the @ElonJet account.

Musk tweeted at 10:09 p.m. on Dec. 15, that the journalists had posted “basically assassination coordinates” for him and his family.

The Washington Post did not find evidence that any of the suspended journalists did so, and, unsurprisingly, neither Musk nor Twitter responded to the Post’s request for comment.

The Twitter CEO tweeted a 30-minute timed poll at 10:56 p.m. asking users to choose whether to “unsuspend accounts who doxxed (Musk’s) exact location in real-time” immediately, on Dec. 16, seven days from the original suspensions or further into the future. 

“If anyone posted real-time locations & addresses of NYT reporters, FBI would be investigating, there’d be hearings on Capitol Hill & Biden would give speeches about end of democracy,” Musk tweeted eight minutes after posting the poll.

Right, because everyone definitely takes attacks against the press seriously.

Although 38% of respondents said Twitter should suspend the journalists’ accounts for longer than seven days, over 40% voted to reinstate the journalists immediately. 

Of course, Musk hadn’t exactly planned on people calling him out on his nonsense. So, instead of reinstating the seven journalists’ Twitter accounts, he posted another poll at 11:34 p.m., citing “too many options” in the original poll. The updated poll included a 24-hour deadline and only two choices: to reinstate their accounts either immediately or in seven days.

Hilariously, almost 60% of respondents voted to reinstate the seven journalists immediately. To Musk’s credit, he reinstated the accounts just after midnight on Dec. 17, tweeting that “the people have spoken.” Of course, they had to speak twice to be heard, but I suppose that is irrelevant.

The journalists are not allowed to post until they remove the tweets that Musk says violated Twitter’s policies, though, a condition with which at least two of the journalists have thus far refused to comply.

Ironically, Musk tweeted “I love Barbara Streisand lol” approximately two hours after the journalists’ suspensions took effect.

The tweet faced backlash from some Twitter users accusing Musk of attempting to redirect attention away from his efforts to silence the press.

Other users, though, have pointed out Musk’s obnoxious reference to the so-called “Streisand Effect,” which BBC News defined in 2012 as “an online phenomenon in which an attempt to hide or remove information — a photo, video, story etc. — results in the greater spread of the information in question.”

Musk then tweeted another poll on Dec. 18, asking users if he should “step down as head of Twitter.” The Twitter CEO added that he would “abide by the results” of the poll, which is slated to close at 6:20 a.m. on Dec. 19. As of publication, over half of respondents to the poll, which has already received over 8.5 million votes and nearly 200,000 likes, have voted in favor of Musk stepping down.

Obviously, I am nothing but relieved to know that he lifted the suspension on the seven journalists’ accounts. 

However, the English dictionary lacks the language to describe my fury with the sheer necessity of such an action. Remember: this is the same person who reinstated accounts associated with far-right conspiracy groups, including QAnon.

I am most offended by Musk’s use of quotation marks around the term “journalists.” This simple but obnoxious grammatical choice exposes his clear contempt for journalists and the work we do. 

These people are not “journalists” simply because they cover you in a way you do not appreciate, my friend. They are journalists, and Musk’s lack of respect toward them is nauseatingly upsetting. 

Although the media are neither intrinsically faultless nor inherently innocent, it is imperative that we understand the relationship between our democracy and the media. Above all else, we cannot neglect to consider the necessity of the “fourth branch” of government to sustain a functioning democracy. 

So, yes, @ElonMusk, you’ve truly done it this time — you’ve finally achieved “Chief Twit” status.

Now, stop being an ignorant troll and remember that you make more in a day than ten journalists like me will make in a lifetime.