The upsides (and downsides) of angering one of the world's richest men
Reflections on getting suspended from Twitter.
My first reaction to being suddenly suspended from Twitter on Thursday evening was, to be honest, despondency.
I’ve been grinding day in and day out for the better part of a decade to build an audience of nearly 800,000 followers. It took live-tweeting untold hours of Trump rallies, congressional hearings, right-wing TV programs and everything else under the sun to get to a point where I felt comfortable leaving a traditional job and going independent. From the early days of the Trump presidency onward, I’ve used my Twitter account to post video documentation of just about every major US political event that’s happened. Twitter is my main source of the new readers and subscribers that are the lifeblood of this newsletter. It’s vital to what I’m doing.
And then, with the press of a button, it was all gone.
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For those who haven’t heard, I was among a group of eight journalists, all of whom have been critical of Elon Musk, who were “permanently suspended” from the platform for posting a link to a Facebook page that uses publicly available information to track Musk’s private jet. That page was in the news after Musk, citing dubious concerns about his family’s safety, banned the Twitter version of the account. As headlines swirled about that suspension, I posted a link merely noting that while “ElonJet” may no longer be on Twitter, it still lives on Facebook. (You can see a screengrab of my offending tweet in this post.)
The tweet I posted was so innocuous that when I was suspended, it didn’t even occur to me that it could have possibly been the reason. Only hours later and with help from journalists who were reporting about the mass suspensions did I figure out that my tweet, which I posted Wednesday morning, allegedly violated new Twitter terms of service that Musk announced Wednesday evening. (You do the math on that one.)
Musk went as far as to accuse us of posting “assassination coordinates.” That allegation is absurd for a number of reasons, among them that at no time did I actually disclose his location, and that flight tracking information is a standard part of news reporting prominent political and cultural figures. But I suspect that the rules and rationale for the suspensions are beside the point. Musk’s message was loud and clear — Twitter is his playground now, and he’ll kick the libs out of it if he wants to.
My feelings of despondency didn’t end up lasting long. Within an hour of being banished, I was flooded with overwhelming love and support — so many messages that I couldn’t possibly respond to all of them. New newsletter subscriptions poured in. A founders of Post.news encouraged me to create an account there, and after I did I quickly amassed nearly 50,000 followers (if you’re on Post, follow me here). People ranging from my college professors to childhood friends to conservatives I’ve beefed with on Twitter to members of Congress either reached out to me directly to say they had my back or expressed solidarity publicly.
Somewhat ironically, getting suspended from Twitter turned me into one of Twitter’s main characters. My name was the top trending topic in the US for parts of both Thursday and Friday. Seeing a stream of praise about my work on Twitter while I couldn’t respond to it was a bit like watching my own wake, but it was very gratifying.
And it went beyond social media. I ended up being invited to do more TV appearances and interviews over the weekend than I had done in the previous year combined. (I particularly enjoyed the one you can watch below with Chris Hayes.)
While my account was slapped with a notice telling me I’d been “permanently suspended,” it didn’t take long for me to get the sense that it’d likely be a temporary situation — and possibly a very temporary one at that. Musk ran a poll Thursday evening asking when I and the other suspended journalists should be unsuspended. In a Trumpian flourish, when the winning result ended up being “now,” he simply tossed it out and ran a new poll, opening the voting for 24 hours. Again, the winning result was “now,” and when I logged into Twitter late Friday night, I was taken to a landing page directing me to delete the offending tweet in order to get my account restored, which I did.
So I’m back — for now at least.
While the suspension fiasco may have ended up being a net positive for me personally, the bigger picture is very bad news about Twitter’s trajectory. As BS as it was, Musk at least offered some sort of justification for the suspensions that ensnared me and other journalists, but Linette Lopez, a journalist for Business Insider who has published hard-hitting investigations of Musk’s companies, was also banned from Twitter over the weekend with no explanation offered whatsoever. On Sunday morning, Musk’s right-wing friends celebrated when Taylor Lorenz of the Washington Post was suddenly suspended for essentially made-up reasons (her suspension was lifted a few hours later).
Despite Musk’s proclamation earlier this year that “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means,” it’s pretty clear that these arbitrary suspensions are aimed at chilling criticism of him and critical coverage of his companies. If you can be banned for posts that didn’t violate the terms of service when they were published, as happened in my case, you’re forced to think twice about whether it’s really worth it to criticize him in the first place. It makes it riskier to hold Musk accountable in the way I’ve tried to do both in this newsletter and on Twitter, especially for independent journalists who rely on the platform to expand their reach. Will I publish another column describing Musk’s politics as “reactionary populism,” or am I better off pivoting to another topic and keeping my following in tact?
In the pre-Musk days when Twitter was a publicly traded company, it at least seemed to be a rules-based platform. For the most part, there was transparency about what sorts of behavior was unacceptable and an appeals process for accounts that allegedly committed infractions. (When I explored appealing my suspension on Thursday night, I discovered that the button for doing so was broken.) Things have drastically changed over the past couple months. My suspension was one of the clearest indicators yet that now, the rules are whatever the company’s right-wing owner wants them to be at a given moment to spite his enemies and reward his allies.
That’s a bummer for those of us who have come to love and rely on Twitter, but in the end it’s now Elon’s plaything to use and abuse as he sees fit. As I tried to explain during a number of TV hits I did with foreign outlets over the weekend, the First Amendment protects Americans from government interference with speech, but not from reactionary billionaires buying the mediums of speech and manipulating them for their purposes. Twitter may have once seemed like a public square of sorts, but Elon bought it, took it private, and now it’s free speech only if he declares it so.
But there’s more to life and news media than Twitter. If that wasn’t clear to me before, it is now. Instead of canceling me, getting suspended brought me more exposure than I’ve ever received. It helped me gain a significant toehold on new platforms, expanded this newsletter’s audience, and reminded me that despite Twitter’s newly emboldened right-wing trolls, there’s a lot of people out there who appreciate my work and will follow me wherever I go.
As is often the case in life, a development that initially seemed like a huge negative turned out to be a blessing in disguise. What Musk is doing to Twitter stinks for those of us who have sunk our blood, sweat, and tears into the platform, but even if he kicks us out of his playground and tries to erase any record of the time we’ve spent there, we’ll regroup and rebuild somewhere else.
That’s it for today
I’ll be back with more Wednesday. Please support this work with a paid subscription.
I'm well pleased you're back, Aaron. Following your twitter feed is one of fhe first things I do in the morning and one of the last things I do at night. You're funnier, fairer and more objective than Media Matters and the exploration of the right wing media ecosystem is interesting in its own right and I believe an important part of understanding US politics. I'm well pleased you consider it a blessing in disguise too. But the whole thing has left a very nasty taste in my mouth. I'm not at all sure that we've seen the last of Elon Musk's unpredictable bouts of ill humour and I fear he has way too big an ego to admit he's made a mistake buying Twitter and should sell it to someone more sensible.
Beautiful, Aaron! I have sadly seen some bad-faith actors try to tar you as a hypocrite for simply saying you were suspended from Twitter, trying to throw the times you reported on their fascist pals getting suspended for transgressions exponentially worse than anything you have ever posted.
But you handled it with more grace than the sum total of 75 million fascist reactionaries. Thank you for your work, for your wit, for your intelligence, and for your class.