Whistleblower Files Complaint to Congress Over Twitter Suspending Journalists

Nearly a week after Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk said that the accounts of suspended journalists would be reinstated, at least six remain blocked.

Voice of America’s chief national correspondent, Steve Herman, is among them. Twitter suspended the accounts Dec. 15 over posts about another removed account — @Elonjet — which uses public data to track Musk’s private jet and other aircraft.

On Thursday, the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a Washington-based whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, filed a complaint to Congress over the suspension of Herman and other journalists.

“All of this is disturbing,” GAP’s Senior Counsel David Seide wrote in a letter addressed to the House and Senate commerce committees. “For no rational reason, Twitter and Mr. Musk wrongly muzzled and continue to muzzle Voice of America’s reporter and at least five other journalists. We ask you to continue to review this mistreatment and, if you believe warranted, investigate further.”

The letter, shared with VOA, said that Musk “abused his authority by acting arbitrarily and capriciously” in suspending and continuing to block several prominent journalists from the social media platform.

Twitter did not immediately respond to VOA’s request for comment, sent in a direct message via the platform.

Twitter appeals

Early Saturday morning, Musk announced on Twitter that the “accounts who doxxed my location will have their suspension lifted now.”

To other Twitter users, Herman’s account looked as if it were back to normal.

But when Herman opened the app later that day, he was met with a notification saying he could regain access only if he deleted three tweets that referenced the @Elonjet account — or he could file an appeal.

Herman chose the latter option, he told VOA, “not realizing that put me in an even deeper level of purgatory.”

Making it seem as if his account was reactivated was “disingenuous at best,” Herman said.

Other journalists had similar experiences, including Matt Binder of Mashable, Drew Harwell of The Washington Post, Micah Lee of The Intercept, Ryan Mac of The New York Times, Donie O’Sullivan of CNN and freelance reporters Aaron Rupar and Tony Webster.

VOA spoke with several of these reporters, who all said they were not surprised at being suspended.

Rupar and Webster told VOA they opted to delete the tweets in question to regain full access to their accounts, but the other six refused, so remain locked out.

Twitter told them they will be barred until specified posts are deleted.

“I will not delete the tweets because I feel there was nothing wrong with those tweets, and deleting them would be an admission that I did something wrong,” Herman said. “The only way I will tweet again is if my account is reinstated unconditionally.”

Mashable’s Binder was briefly unsuspended Saturday, but he says he was locked out again after asking a Twitter official which company policy he had broken.

He appealed the ruling instead of deleting the offending tweet but said that Twitter denied the request.

Now journalists are “going to have to be cautious about how they disseminate their reporting on Twitter because Elon Musk can just choose on a whim to change policy,” Binder told VOA in an interview. “We’ve seen it already.”

GAP’s Seide said suspensions over @Elonjet tweets do not bode well for press freedom on Twitter.

“It’s especially concerning because it’s so arbitrary and innocuous,” he told VOA. “If they can force journalists to censor themselves on innocuous issues, they plainly do that on other issues, too.”

Webster, a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis, said Twitter has played a big role in building an audience for his work. Because of that, he deleted the requested tweets to regain access.

Still, getting suspended has changed how he engages with the platform, he told VOA.

“It’s really chilling to have to be so careful about what to say,” he said. “You just worry about what might happen in the future if you say something that might be upsetting to Elon Musk.”

Even though Webster is back on Twitter, he said he no longer trusts the platform and plans to use the social media platform Mastodon more.

The Intercept’s Lee told VOA he will not delete the tweet that got him suspended.

That journalists now risk facing arbitrary censorship “basically just proves that Twitter is no longer a viable platform,” he said, adding that he believes it is important to “diversify what social media you use.”

VOA’s public relations team on Thursday confirmed Herman’s account had not been reinstated.

In an emailed statement when Herman was first suspended, VOA spokesperson Nigel Gibbs said, “As Chief National Correspondent, Mr. Herman covers international and national news stories, and this suspension impedes his ability to perform his duties as a journalist.”

Musk had said on Twitter that the @Elonjet account and any accounts that linked to it were suspended because they violated Twitter’s anti-doxxing policy.

Doxxing is when someone maliciously publishes private or identifying information about someone — like their phone number or address — on the internet, according to Clayton Weimers, executive director of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) U.S. office.

The @Elonjet Twitter account, however, used publicly available data. Additionally, none of the journalists who had tweeted about Musk and his shutdown of the account had tweeted location information for his plane.

Doxxing is an increasingly common intimidation tactic to target journalists over their coverage, Weimers said.

“The risk here is that [Musk is] really lowering the barrier for what we’re considering doxxing and weaponizing it against journalists in a way that doesn’t make journalists or other public officials any safer on the platform,” Weimers said.

Twitter has historically been slow to respond to genuine doxxing attacks, Weimers said.

Musk also dissolved Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, of which RSF was a longtime member. Made up of human and civil rights groups, the 100-member advisory group advised on policies to respond to hate speech and other issues on Twitter.

Since Twitter is Musk’s private company, “there’s an argument to be made that it’s his $44 billion plaything, and he can make the rules as he sees fit,” Herman acknowledged. “And if he wants to turn it into the online equivalent of a private country club, then he probably legally can.”

Herman said he has not spoken with any of the other journalists in the suspended-from-Twitter club.

“I’ve been pretty busy,” he said. “But I think some of us are following each other on Mastodon now.”

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