Let’s Hear From the 2 MN Journalists Elon Musk Just Banned From Twitter
Two Minnesota-connected journalists—Aaron Rupar and Tony Webster—on being subjected to the demented whims of a megalomaniac oligarch.
12:42 PM CST on December 16, 2022
As Elon Musk single-handedly destroys Twitter, it's funny to recall the fact he didn't even want to sink $44 billion of his vast, stupid fortune into the platform. Now, sweaty with insecurity he masks with the cringiest online-guy humor, the billionaire stumbles from one self-inflicted drama to another, further breaking his shiny new toy in the process.
The latest ordeal: Last night's banishment of a handful of journalists who, apparently, tweeted links to a banned account, @ElonJet, that uses public data to track Elon's private jet. Coming from a so-called free speech absolutist, that's pretty fucking rich. “My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk,” he tweeted just last month. In a show of true leadership, Musk punted a poll to his sycophants asking how potential reinstatement of the journalists should be handled. The result, remarkably, favored their immediate un-banning... so the Twitter CEO created a new poll, saying the initial one was faulty. Musk was later pressed about the suspensions by journalists in a Twitter Spaces gathering. It concluded with Musk throwing a tantrum and leaving... so the 51-year-old businessman then disabled the Twitter Spaces function entirely. Ya know, real grown-up behavior.
Among the journalists whose speech was silenced by Musk: Substack star Aaron Rupar (790K followers) and FOIA champion Tony Webster (33K followers). We caught up with both locally launched reporters Friday morning to hash out this profoundly dumb and depressing saga in the history of online media.
[Editor's note: By the morning of Dec. 17, both accounts had been freed from Twitter jail.]
On Getting Banned...
Rupar: It’s a lot more wild than I expected. I didn’t expect this to become an international story. Around 6 p.m., I started getting messages: “Oh my God, your Twitter account has been banned!” Sure enough, I pulled up Twitter on my phone and there was a notice that my account had been permanently banned. The funny thing is, they have a link within the notice to appeal, and the link is busted. It’s so on-brand for Elon’s Twitter, where it feels like nothing works. Another reporter texted me asking: “Did you post anything about the Elon jet account? I had linked to the Facebook page of the jet account, after it had been banned from Twitter. Someone from the Twitter safety team eventually got back to me and said, yeah, that was the reason.
The funny thing, I posted it at like 9 a.m., and Elon posted their new policy six or seven hours later. I think the whole chain of events shows that the terms of service are whatever he wants them to be at a given moment. The blowback has been pretty bad. There’s a certain point where, on some level, he’s trying to run a business, and if you alienate your core user base… In my case, the videos I’ve posted have done over 4 billion views on Twitter. It’s good for me in terms of growing an audience, but it’s also good for Twitter. You’d think, from a rational standpoint, you wouldn’t want to alienate people like me. It’s hard to get into Elon’s head, but the claim that he made that linking to this Facebook page somehow put his family in danger? It’s pretty preposterous.
Webster: As it stands right now, I have no knowledge of what, specifically, I’m alleged to have done or what rule I’ve broken. Elon Musk banned the account that was tracking his jet, and after that happened I tweeted links to the Facebook and Instagram accounts for that Elon jet account. I didn’t tweet anything encouraging anything at all… I’m guessing that’s what did it? He said people were doxxing his real-time location information. All of the journalist accounts I’ve seen, they were discussing it, talking about it, reporting on it. The flight information was, at that point, day-old location information, which is exactly what he said would be allowed. The [poll re-do] feels a lot like election results denial. The updated poll still has “now” way in the lead. I don’t have any specific knowledge that my account will be restored. When I log in, it says I’ve been suspended permanently. And yes [laughs], the "protest your suspension" link is broken. So is the one to Twitter Rules.
On the Obvious Hypocrisy...
Rupar: The hypocrisy is really glaring in this case, because he posted a tweet where he directly and literally said his commitment to free speech expands to the Elon jet Twitter account. Certainly people change their minds, and he owns the company so he has that prerogative, but I think it’s a good lesson for journalists and media outlets to at least get a toehold on other platforms, because you can be banned for anything and the rules change all the time. This is the clearest indication that the rules are whatever Elon says they are.
Webster: It’s frustrating, because Elon Musk has promised that he would bring free speech, and he has specifically stated his advocacy for citizen and independent journalism. This seems to be such an arbitrary, impulsive decision, and we can’t have a system where, just on an emotional whim, people permanently lose their ability to speak to their audience and share their journalistic work. It’s really alarming for the future of the platform, and for journalism and speech generally.
Musk makes stuff up as he goes along. He doesn’t have people who will push back, and everyone needs that in their life. That’s especially true when you’re in extreme positions of power and wealth. It is funny watching people contort themselves to honor and deify Elon Musk. I’ve seen people on the right–Tim Pool–who actually retweeted my tweet that I believe got me banned. Pool said, “It’s public information, the Twitter rule creates chaos.” Then I get banned, and with his signature performative outrage, he says we’re all literally doxxing Elon and that he supports permanent bans. Overnight! You flipped your position.
On Your Crystal Ball Prediction for Twitter's Future...
Rupar: I don’t foresee it growing. I think the big question is when do major brands, public figures, media outlets cut bait on it? I’ve noticed, in my own mention and replies, that it has become more toxic and mean in the past couple months. All of these right-wing trolls feel super emboldened, and there’s the sense that there really aren't rules anymore. We’ve seen a surge in racial slurs and harassment that have been well-documented. It’s a shame, because the beauty of Twitter has been it being this town square, where you can live events together–news, the World Cup, a shared experience. Maybe those interactions aren’t worth as much as we thought they were. Maybe it’s good for all of us to go touch grass a bit more. To me, it’s a question more of when not if. The trajectory Twitter is on has become clear.
Webster: Unless there’s a severe and immediate change of course, Twitter is dead. If you can’t trust that you can use Twitter effectively to communicate with friends, and for journalists to report on issues that matter to the community… If you don’t have that trust, why invest one more tweet even into the platform?
On the Business Impact to Substack...
Rupar: For me, running a newsletter business, Twitter is my subscriber base. It has lead to a really nice surge overnight of subscribers, but when I was first banned I thought, "Jeez, I have to reimagine my whole way of making a living." That kinda speaks to the power Twitter has. If I’m not on Twitter, it’s going to be hard to get new readers. The whole math of Substack for me is, when you have almost 800,000 followers, if you can convert even a small percentage to subscribers, the scale works out well. I’ve basically been running a business on Twitter, so to lose Twitter hurts.
On the Impact to Flight Tracking...
Webster: The flight thing is personal to me because, along with 50,000 other people around the world, I run an antenna in my window to pick up when planes are flying around. That community-sourced public data is really important for journalism, human rights investigations, civil defense in Ukraine. During the unrest in Minneapolis, especially, the community wanted to know: What is this plane or helicopter flying overhead? It’s critical information. Should there be a conversation around privacy? Sure, conversations are always good. But this is not how you have a conversation. This issue seems to have upset him the most.
On Whether Racket Should Poke the Bear and Tag Elon when Sharing this Article...
Rupar: That’s up to you guys. I’m trying not to antagonize him. I don’t know if you saw last night, but there were a bunch of journalists–including a couple who had been banned, through a loophole–and Elon got in the space and left in a huff. Then he disabled the entire Spaces feature. That speaks to how dysfunctional Twitter is right now.
Webster: I don’t know. The thing that’s on my mind is: Losing a twitter account is one thing, but Elon Musk, through his own speech, can enact profound harassment on people, which is ironic given what he’s doing. My concern is that it feels, to me, like he may have been getting some pushback on these decisions, and now he’s putting it up to a community vote to justify bringing people back. Washing his hands of it. I worry if he’ll go on the attack against the people he banned to those who supported them. If that happens, that’s scary. We don’t have billionaire money to buy private security.
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