No One Wins in Elon Musk’s Battle With Journalists

The owner of Twitter and some of its most avid users are at war over the platform.

A cartoonish illustration of Elon Musk smacking a blue bird in a reporter's hat with a hammer
Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

Last night, several well-known journalists, including Ryan Mac of The New York Times and Drew Harwell of The Washington Post, were suspended from Twitter.

The suspensions were ostensibly related to the journalists’ reporting on an account—@ElonJet, operated by the 20-year-old Jack Sweeney—which was dedicated to publishing the location of Elon Musk’s private jet based on public data. Musk had once promised that his commitment to free speech would prevent him from ever suspending or banning @ElonJet, but he pivoted this week after an apparently unrelated alleged stalking incident.

On Wednesday, Twitter made a policy change that expanded the company’s definition of doxxing to include “real-time location info,” and last night, Musk tweeted that the suspended accounts “posted my exact real-time location, basically assassination coordinates,” suggesting that either the jet tracker or the journalists who were talking about it had endangered his life. He also showed up briefly in a live audio chat hosted by the BuzzFeed reporter Katie Notopoulos in Twitter Spaces. During that conversation, he claimed that at least one of the suspended journalists, Harwell, had been tweeting direct links to his address. Harwell, who was able to participate in the Space despite his suspension, possibly due to a technical glitch, refuted this, saying that he had only linked to @ElonJet while talking about it in a journalistic capacity and never made any mention of Musk’s address. (If the conversation weren’t between a journalist and a famous billionaire, it would be a boring moderation quibble.)

Musk didn’t engage with the distinction, and spent most of his time in the chat explaining his attitude toward journalists on Twitter. “There is not going to be any distinction in the future between journalists, so-called journalists, and regular people,” Musk said, in part. “Everyone is going to be treated the same. You’re not special because you’re a journalist.” Soon after, he left the chat, and then the Twitter Spaces feature went down across the entire site, ending Notopoulos’s stream. (Musk has said this was due to a bug.) Twitter no longer has a communications department, and an email sent last night to Ella Irwin, its new head of trust and safety, went unanswered. (She sent a comment to Reuters: “I understand that the focus seems mainly to be on journalist accounts but we applied the policy equally to journalist and non-journalist accounts today.”) I asked Notopoulos about her takeaway from the exchange with Musk. “Having Elon join the Twitter Space gave me a brief glimpse of what it feels like to be Howard Stern when Ronnie the Limo Driver is having an argument with Marianne from Brooklyn,” she said. “Ultimately, no one wins.”

The culture war between the media and the tech industry has been well documented, and resentment between the two parties has been simmering for years. Journalists don’t like that their industry has become reliant on apps and social-media platforms; technologists feel aggrieved when they are criticized, and irritated by journalists’ claims to moral authority and credibility. In his recently self-published book, The Network State, the famous bitcoin maximalist Balaji Srinivasan argued that there are just three poles of power in the world today: the Communist Party of China, the internet, and The New York Times, “America’s ruling newspaper.”

Now this feud is seen in a microcosm: a weird, direct struggle between Musk and individual journalists. Ever since he announced his plans to acquire Twitter, there have been signs that Musk considered the purchase a way to rob journalists of a space that they felt they defined. He made a point of reigniting debate about the media’s and the former management of Twitter’s handling of the New York Post’s controversial story about Hunter Biden in October 2020. He did away with the old verification system on Twitter, which he described as a “lords & peasants” system. (It had favored journalists, who saw verification as a valuable tool—both to prevent impersonation and to validate their identities while reaching out to potential sources.)

At some level, the argument is over who has the more valid claim to defining the culture of Twitter and to enjoying—or attempting to enjoy—spending time on it. Tech people and media people have generally been the most avid users of the platform (aside from Taylor Swift fans). Sometimes, Twitter was a website where journalists could disseminate embarrassing or unpleasant information about tech companies and their executives, and dunk on their fanboys. It was also where journalists, during the Gamergate harassment campaigns of 2014 and 2015, brought attention to the issue of doxxing as a dangerous phenomenon. That word went mainstream, and is now being used against them with relish, as I wrote earlier this year when many in the tech industry were criticizing Notopoulos for “doxxing” the founders of the Bored Ape Yacht Club brand by publishing their names. Now Musk is accusing journalists of having no concern about how their tweets might threaten his personal safety, even as his own reckless, malicious posting about Twitter’s former head of safety, Yoel Roth, reportedly sent Roth into hiding last weekend.

As Notopoulos pointed out, nobody is really winning this dispute. It is “very online” and pretty ridiculous to behold. And it’s playing out predictably. Marc Andreessen, of the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, picked a fight specifically with the Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz, a popular target for the far right, over the journalist suspensions and the “doxxing” debate, despite the fact that she was not involved. (Lorenz is a former Atlantic staff writer.) The tech investor and podcaster Jason Calacanis defended Musk last night with a plea that people just “be good to each other,” bookended by emoji hearts while other users sent tweets about “standing with” the banned journalists.

Musk’s behavior is petty and random; his justifications for his actions are inconsistent and illogical. It’s not like he’s throwing journalists in prison or violating their rights—he can’t; he just owns a website. But he is revoking access to an online space that matters to them in serious and not-so-serious ways. Twitter feels important because that’s where journalists can be a part of a media scene. But Twitter is important because news is made on Twitter and seen on Twitter and discussed on Twitter. Depending on a reporter’s beat, not being able to access the platform can be a real professional problem—one that might even get her in trouble with her employer, should she work for someone who is sympathetic to Musk’s reasoning. “Twitter or Elon aren’t journalists’ bosses even if it feels like it sometimes,” Notopoulos added in a follow-up to her comment. “Ultimately journalists are worker bees who don’t have a lot of power.”

Anyway, it seems as though Musk might let the journalists back on the platform in seven days, or “now,” depending on the results of a poll he tweeted. We’ll see what he feels like doing.