Twitter on Thursday evening banned the accounts of several high-profile journalists from top news organizations without explanation, apparently marking a significant attempt by new owner Elon Musk to wield his unilateral authority over the platform.
The accounts belonging to CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, The New York Times’ Ryan Mac, The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell and other journalists who have covered Musk aggressively in recent weeks were all abruptly permanently suspended. The account of progressive independent journalist Aaron Rupar was also banned.
Neither Musk nor Twitter responded to a request for comment Thursday evening, and the platform did not explain precisely why the journalists were exiled from the platform. But as the news broke online, Musk tweeted that the “same doxxing rules apply to ‘journalists’ as to everyone else,” in an apparent reference to a now-banned flight tracking Twitter account at the center of recent controversy.
The bans raised a number of questions about the future of the platform, which has been referred to as a digital town square. It also called into serious question Musk’s supposed commitment to free speech.
Musk has repeatedly said he would like to permit all legal speech on the platform; in April, on the same day he announced he would purchase Twitter, he had tweeted: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
A CNN spokesperson said the company has asked Twitter for an explanation, and it would “reevaluate our relationship based on that response.”
“The impulsive and unjustified suspension of a number of reporters, including CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, is concerning but not surprising. Twitter’s increasing instability and volatility should be of incredible concern for everyone who uses Twitter,” the spokesperson said.
A New York Times spokesperson called the mass bans “questionable and unfortunate,” adding: “Neither The Times nor Ryan have received any explanation about why this occurred. We hope that all of the journalists’ accounts are reinstated and that Twitter provides a satisfying explanation for this action.”
“Elon says he is a free speech champion and he is banning journalists for exercising free speech,” Harwell told CNN on Thursday. “I think that calls into question his commitment.”
Rupar, too, said he had heard “nothing” from Twitter about the suspension.
The suspensions come after Twitter shut down an account belonging to Mastodon, an emerging competitor, also on Thursday.
The Mastodon account had tweeted earlier in the day that people could follow @ElonJet, the account that tracks Musk’s private plane on its platform, after the billionaire banned @ElonJet from Twitter on Wednesday.
That tweet is likely what ran afoul of Twitter’s rules. In his quest to rid Twitter of @ElonJet, Musk introduced new policies banning accounts that track people’s live locations.
Musk also blocked any account from linking to such information, as Mastodon did by linking to the account on its platform.
The move comes after Musk reinstated previous Twitter rule-breakers and stopped enforcing the platform’s policies prohibiting Covid-19 misinformation.
Several of the journalists banned Thursday had covered the ban of the @ElonJet account, and highlighted the irony of Musk’s self-purported mission to advance free speech.
“Free speech is when the world’s second-richest man threatens legal action against a 20-year-old college student for sharing publicly available data he doesn’t like,” Harwell tweeted before his account was taken down, referring to Jack Sweeney, the college student who runs @ElonJet.
CNN’s O’Sullivan, too, had been covering the story, having interviewed Sweeney and his grandmother about the issue.
“I do think this is very important for the potential chilling impact this can have for freelance journalists, independent journalists around the world, particularly those who cover Elon Musk’s other companies, like Tesla and SpaceX,” O’Sullivan told CNN Thursday after his account was suspended.
As the furor over the account suspensions unfolded, some Twitter users reported the platform had begun intervening when they attempted to post links to their own profiles on alternative social networks, including Mastodon.
Those reports were confirmed Thursday evening by a CNN reporter who was blocked from sharing a Mastodon profile URL and was given an automated error message that said Twitter or its partners had identified the site as “potentially harmful.”