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Elon Musk suspends — then restores — the Twitter accounts of several journalists

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are new developments in the ongoing saga of Elon Musk and Twitter. You will remember that Musk, the tech billionaire, finalized his purchase of the social media platform in October and since then has made a lot of dramatic moves, including dissolving the board, firing top executives and thousands of staff and reinstating people previously banned for bad behavior. But earlier this week, Musk was the one doing the banning.

First, he banned @ElonJet, a Twitter account run by a college student that shared the whereabouts of his private jet using publicly available information. Then he suspended the accounts of a number of journalists, including from prominent outlets like CNN and The New York Times, that had covered that story or who had previously covered his business decisions on the dubious grounds that the journalist violated Twitter's rules on doxing, which refers to sharing personal information such as someone's home address. Those bans were sharply criticized by officials in the U.S., Europe and even the U.N. But earlier today, Musk reinstated a number of those accounts, apparently based on the results of a poll posted to his Twitter account.

It was another reminder not just of Musk's idiosyncratic decision making but also of Twitter's outsized role as a tool for journalists and officials in getting information to the public. So we wanted to talk about that with someone who's been thinking a lot about that. So we called Joan Donovan. She's the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and she's with us now. Professor Donovan, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOAN DONOVAN: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to start by getting your reaction to these latest developments, Elon Musk reinstating the accounts of some of the journalists who were banned on Thursday. Now, remembering that he said the bans were necessary because this information was putting his personal safety and that of his family at risk - but then he says he reversed himself based on a poll he posted to his Twitter account, where nearly 60% of the people who responded said that they should have those accounts reinstated. I just wanted to ask, as briefly as you can, what do you make of all that?

DONOVAN: Well, Musk's brand seems to be reactionary decision making. And with the ElonJet account, these reporters were reporting on that account. So it was not the case that they were sharing information that wasn't in the public interest but that this account had been singled out before by Musk as a problem. And what triggered Musk in banning everybody that was sharing news about this account was an altercation that happened. Seemingly, someone had targeted one of his cars that one of his children were in the day before.

And so - but that's a convoluted way around of saying that Musk was reacting to what a lot of these journalists deal with every day, which is people trying to find personal information about them and then potential threats that come from it. And so when he targeted the journalists that were reporting on him, it did raise quite a bit of concern, not just within the journalist ecosystem but also public officials and academics because they weren't really aware of how much direct control Elon was going to exercise over the platform. And now we know that content moderation is going to be subject to his whims.

MARTIN: On Thursday evening, you actually were hosting a Twitter Space with some of the journalists who had been banned, and then Elon Musk popped into it. Could you just tell us a little bit about what happened during the meeting? People can listen to it themselves on your feed, but is there anything you took away from that meeting? Is there anything in particular that stood out to you?

DONOVAN: There's this glitch that essentially, even if you are a banned account, you can still join Spaces. And so we had Matt Binder and Drew Harwell, both who had been banned earlier that night, in the chat when Elon's friend shows up and then when Elon showed up, maybe about 10 minutes later. Elon primarily just said that journalists are no longer going to be treated like a protected class on Twitter. They're going to be treated like the same as everybody else in that if you dox someone, you get suspended.

And the choice to draw the line on doxing is a really interesting one, I think, because of the way journalists have had to deal with this over the years of using Twitter and other public platforms in order to protect themselves and their family. And the way the conversation evolved, essentially, was that Drew Harwell was able to ask a question to Elon about the suspension and about the ElonJet account. And Elon stuck to this line of if you dox someone, you get suspended. And then he hung up. And then about 15 or 20 minutes later, the screen went black, and Spaces was shut down for the entire site, which goes to show how much control he exercises over the entire communal space.

And I, you know, encourage people to think less about social media as public space and more about it like how you would behave inside, you know, a fast food chain. You know, there are managers. There are people watching. There's codes of conduct. And unfortunately, with the way that Musk is targeting particular mainstream journalists, I think we're going to see more of these shenanigans and not less over the next couple of months.

MARTIN: I take it that you have a concern that because of the increased reliance on Twitter by, you know - obviously not by everybody. I mean, people say this all the time. Twitter's not the real world. But it has become a - really embedded in journalistic practice, in disseminating information. It's - you know, government officials rely on it to let people know things that they think they need to know in real time. So I think do you have a concern that this reliance on this particular mechanism is making it easier for certain individuals and groups to manipulate and shape the public conversation?

DONOVAN: So recently, I published a book called "Meme Wars" with co-authors Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg. And in that book, what we try to show is that memes online, which we all feel are jokes and are fun ways of moving information around and poking fun at things, pointing out contradictions - the - and memes are starting to have a really important impact on how our politicians communicate, how celebrities communicate. As well, journalists - the way in which journalists are starting to understand information campaigns online is through hashtags and other slogans.

And so when we look at the rise in disinformation, it was impossible to subtract that from the changes in internet communication and the usefulness of these short, quippy images and slogans. But where Musk fits into this is really interesting and something that I want to explore more and research because Musk - he often talks in this coded language. He, you know, will say things like nothing burger, and it's not necessarily the kind of language befitting of a CEO. He also will talk about NPCs, which, in meme language, is nonplaying characters, which are essentially this idea that the right has that the left are carrying out the status quo and can't think for themselves.

And so as we start to think about, well, what is the future of the internet, and what are the ways in which our communication channels are going to be challenged and controlled, it's really important for us to understand that there are so many things changing about our culture all at once. Journalism especially is important here because of the way that Twitter has become the assigning editor for many newsrooms. And so whether journalists like it or not, they're going to have to reckon with Musk and the changing nature of political communication so that they can do their jobs. And unfortunately, until there's a technological rival to Twitter and the right kind of regulatory conditions that would make a space for news online, we're kind of stuck with what we have right now.

MARTIN: That was Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and she's co-author of the book "Meme Wars: The Untold Story Of The Online Battles Upending Democracy In America." Professor Donovan, thanks so much for sharing this expertise with us.

DONOVAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.