By William J. Furney
Western nations generally take press freedom seriously, as a fundamental pillar of democracy where no one is immune from reporters’ questioning and investigation. So when a businessman starts banning journalists on an American online platform he owns and where they publish their thoughts and link their stories, he can expect a cascade of condemnation.
Which is exactly the injudicious position Elon Musk finds himself in, after suspending the Twitter accounts of reporters from The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and others. The SpaceX and Tesla boss is irate about tweeps knowing the location of his private jet, and therefore family members — particularly a 20-year-old with an account called @ElonJet that tracked and reported its location.
The account is now banned, and its owner, Jack Sweeney, is facing Musk’s legal wrath after he claimed Sweeney’s tweets put his son X in danger.
“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,” Musk said.
Doxxing, the act of publicly disclosing private information with the intent of causing someone harm, was the reason, he claimed, and a whole bunch of reporters were in on it. Therefore, they had no right to be on Twitter.
The kid may have erred — and it’s not clear what involvement the hacks had in the tracking-and-reporting — but the information he gleaned on the jet’s takeoffs and landings is publicly available anyway, via Flightradar24 and all the other real-time flight services.
So what’s the silencing all about?
Musk, who only took over loss-making Twitter ($4 million a day, Musk says) in October, in a reluctant $44-billion deal — promptly axing stunned staff and temporarily closing offices amid a mass resignation — had been a vocal advocate for free speech. But censorship and axing reporters over what The Post called “a baffling claim” that they had endangered the safety of his son leaves that belief in shreds.
“Media freedom is not a toy,” said United Nations communications chief Melissa Fleming. “A free press is the cornerstone of democratic societies and a key tool in the fight against harmful disinformation.”
The European Union is not having it either.
“News about arbitrary suspension of journalists on Twitter is worrying,” said commissioner Vera Jourova. “EU’s Digital Services Act requires respect of media freedom and fundamental rights. This is reinforced under our #MediaFreedomAct. @elonmusk should be aware of that. There are red lines. And sanctions, soon.”
Musk may be running Twitter like his own digital fiefdom, but at least he’s listening to users’ views. More than 3 million tweeps voted in a poll he ran on whether to unsuspend accounts that doxxed his location, and the majority said he should.
And so the hacks, doubly astounded, were reinstated.
Meanwhile, a journalist with the Business Insider website who has reported on safety issues at Tesla — and who Musk has a beef with — has also found herself locked out of Twitter.
“I was just trying to highlight the fact that he talks about bullying and doxxing and all this stuff… And he’s a pro at it,” a shocked Linette Lopez told The Daily Beast, saying she had no idea how long her account would be suspended.
Newcomer and Twitter rival Mastodon has also been banned — as are links to the service tweeps might want to share, or even place in their bio.
If it all seems like something out of the dystopian playbook of the mad mandarins in Beijing and their Great Firewall of China that outlaws anything online they don’t like, from entire sites such as Facebook and Twitter to Chinese people’s posts, it’s because it probably is. Dissent, in any form, and opposing views, most certainly can not be tolerated; in the crazed world of the autocrat, it’s their ways or no way at all.
Amid accounts that Musk is seeking new investment in bleeding Twitter, and as key advertisers flee the platform and infuriated users delete their accounts, shutting down people’s voices and reports in the free world is hardly likely to help shore up dwindling finances.
The 51-year-old, South African-born father of 10 is, apart from attention-seeking maniacs Harry and Meghan, the most overexposed person on the planet. And the breathless media, desperately seeking clicks, is solely responsible, moulding almost every Musk tweet into yet another article about the wunderkind we could surely do without.
Musk revels in riling up journalists with zany tweets that leave many wondering what he’s on about; and there are questions surrounding his use of Ambien and recreational drugs, as he disclosed in an interview with The Times. Above all, for his many products, the biggest is himself: Brand Elon, an idiosyncratic iconoclast who knows how to keep his name in the headlines and who seemingly craves adoration, a man bent on saving the world by establishing humankind on a new one: Mars.
His reusable booster rockets are a game-changer, a feat that NASA — now a customer — has been unable to achieve; he helped revolutionise the way we send money, with PayPal; and he is brining electric cars to the masses, as well as providing high-speed internet connections in the remotest places on Earth, via Starlink. Other projects include solar energy systems for homes and businesses, brain-computer interfaces, hyperloop transport and an artificial intelligence chatbot (ChatGPT).
With so much going on, and so much visionary innovation, who cares if he puts a few noses out of joint along the way?
Because when you’re King of the World — and beyond — you can do what you want. For a while.
- Title photograph, of Elon Musk smoking marijuana on comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast, in 2018, is courtesty of PowerfulJRE.