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Elon Musk Makes It Even Harder to Tell if You Broke Twitter's Rules

With abrupt suspensions and conflicting remarks, Twitter's new owner has made content moderation on the platform more confusing.

Elon Musk
Billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion.
James Martin/CNET

Billionaire Elon Musk isn't a fan of @ElonJet, a Twitter account that tracks where his private jet lands, but he vowed in November he wouldn't pull it down because of his "commitment to free speech."

Musk, known for sometimes erratic behavior, reversed course this week. Twitter abruptly tweaked its rules against sharing people's private information and media in a way that worked in Musk's favor. 

"Any account doxxing real-time location info of anyone will be suspended, as it is a physical safety violation. This includes posting links to sites with real-time location info. Posting locations someone traveled to on a slightly delayed basis isn't a safety problem, so is OK," Musk tweeted on Dec. 14. He added that a "crazy stalker" had followed a car with his son inside.

The company then started to take down more than 25 accounts that tracked the planes of celebrities, billionaires and other high-profile individuals. But the crackdown didn't stop there. On Thursday, Twitter suspended the accounts of social media rival Mastodon and journalists from outlets including The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post, citing its rules against posting private information. The move sparked outrage from advocacy groups and lawmakers who saw the bans as retaliation against journalists who have criticized Musk.

Then on Friday night, Musk tweeted that accounts would have their suspensions lifted, based on a public poll he'd conducted on Twitter. As of Monday morning, @ElonJet remained suspended but some of the journalists' accounts had reappeared, along with Mastodon's.

Twitter users have long complained about how the company enforces its rules, but content moderation has become even more confusing after Musk's takeover of the company. He's changed his mind about how content should be moderated and Twitter has made sudden tweaks to its rules without much notice. The result is a platform where you don't know where you stand and whether suspension is right around the corner. 

"When you have a really unclear set of rules that can change at a moment's notice at the whim of the owner of the company, you are starting to create a situation where people are going to self-censor," said Emma Llansó, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Free Expression Project. 

Llansó said she's concerned that Musk's "incredibly arbitrary approach" to content moderation could have a "chilling effect" on what users say on the platform and efforts meant to hold Musk accountable for his actions.

An account encouraging users to join Mastodon was temporarily booted from Twitter after sharing a link to @ElonJet's Mastodon account. Other users who tweeted links to their Mastodon accounts saw those links tagged with a warning that they may be unsafe. 

Confusion erupts after journalists get banned 

Twitter in the Musk era has been unpredictable and bewildering. Several high-profile journalists who were booted on Thursday expressed confusion about what they did. 

"I have no idea what rules I purportedly broke," wrote Aaron Rupar, a former Vox journalist who is self-employed, in an online post after the suspension. "I haven't heard anything from Twitter at all."

On Thursday night, Musk made a brief appearance on Twitter's live audio service, Spaces. For some reason, those suspended from Twitter were still allowed on Twitter Spaces. He said journalists wouldn't be treated differently from other users and if anyone "doxs" anyone they will get suspended. Twitter defines doxxing in its rules as sharing people's private information without their consent. He then added that posting a link to the real-time information violates Twitter's rules against evading bans

"You're suggesting we're sharing your address, which is not true," Drew Harwell, a reporter for The Washington Post who was suspended told Musk, adding he just posted links to @ElonJet in the course of reporting the story.

"You dox. You get suspended. End of story," Musk replied before leaving the chat after roughly two minutes. 

Twitter's rules that bar users from posting people's private information existed before Musk took over the company. 

Twitter, though, changed the rules on Wednesday and mentioned the social media platform will suspend users for posting "live location information." The policy says that Twitter defines live "as real-time and/or same-day information where there is potential that the individual could still be at the named location." 

The company also added a section that said live location includes "information shared on Twitter directly or links to 3rd-party URL(s) of travel routes, actual physical location, or other identifying information that would reveal a person's location, regardless if this information is publicly available." Accounts such as @ElonJet use flight data from public sources. Twitter users are allowed to share someone's live location during a "crisis situation to assist with humanitarian efforts" or in "public engagement events," under the rules.

In an update to his post, Rupar wrote that he did tweet a link to @ElonJet's Facebook account before he was banned. The tweet mentioned that the account still was available on Facebook.

"As hard as it may be to interpret linking to a Facebook page that uses publicly available information to track a private jet as violating a 'doxxing' policy, it appears that's what Twitter did to justify my banning," he wrote.

It was unclear how long the journalists would remain suspended, because Musk tweeted that the suspension would last for seven days but the reporters received a notice that the ban was permanent. Musk then tweeted a 24-hour poll asking users if Twitter should "unsuspend accounts" that he said "doxxed him" now or in seven days, signaling that the suspended accounts could be back on sooner.

Musk had tweeted an earlier poll with the same question, and about 43% of 535,233 users voted that the suspended accounts should be reinstated now. After the results didn't support his stance, he tweeted another poll with the same question. It wrapped up late Friday, with nearly 59% of respondents voting to immediately reinstate the accounts. Musk tweeted that the suspensions would be lifted.

The confusion continued over the weekend when Twitter announced other rule changes. On Sunday, Twitter tweeted it would bar links to other social media sites and suspend accounts whose primary purpose is to promote "Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon, Truth Social, Tribel, Nostr and Post." The policy change sparked more criticism of Twitter, and after temporarily suspending some accounts for violating the new rules, Twitter backtracked on the change. The company deleted the new rules and created a poll asking users "Should we have a policy preventing the creation of or use of existing accounts for the main purpose of advertising other social media platforms?"

"Going forward, there will be a vote for major policy changes," Musk tweeted. "My apologies. Won't happen again." 

Twitter faces international outcry 

Twitter's move is already sparking an outcry from regulators, media organizations and advocacy groups who are calling Musk out for hypocrisy. Musk has framed himself as a champion of free speech but has made moves that silence some of his critics. 

"Musk simply does not understand the difference between the public interest and his own interests, seeking to expel journalists critical of him rather than tackling dangerous hate speech and rampant misinformation that cause real-world detriment to the wider public," said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union had urged Musk to reinstate the accounts, noting that "purging critical journalists is an attack on free expression."

Vera Jourova, vice president of the European Commission, tweeted Friday morning that she was troubled by Twitter's "arbitrary suspension of journalists." She added the company violated the EU's Digital Services Act that goes into effect next year and its Media Freedom Act. 

"There are red lines. And sanctions, soon," she said. Companies who violate the Digital Services Act could be fined up to 6% of their global revenue.

So Musk will soon need to think twice before he makes another abrupt, confusing decision.