Update: After this article was published, Twitter banned half a dozen prominent journalists who had covered Musk and were critical of him on the platform.
On Wednesday, Twitter chief Elon Musk banned accounts he said he never would in order to protect free speech, made up new rules to justify it, threatened legal action against a 20-year-old, pontificated on how doxing is banned on the platform, and then immediately posted a video doxing a man and asked his 121 million followers to identify him.
It was the most confusing and publicly volatile series of events yet in the richest man in the world's takeover of Twitter, which has been characterized by unmitigated chaos and the site transforming more and more into a bullhorn for its powerful owner.
It began when Twitter banned the account @elonjet, which had 500 thousand followers and tweeted automated updates about Musk's personal flights using legal, publicly-available aviation data. Anyone can request that the FAA not broadcast that data, which Musk has also done, flight tracker site FlightAware told Motherboard. Previously, Musk had said of the @elonjet account, “My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk,” he tweeted on November 6. Musk has also said he is "against censorship that goes far beyond the law."
The highly targeted ban against an account clearly annoying Musk and almost nobody else caused an immediate uproar, and it was followed by more bans. The personal account of 20-year-old @elonjet creator Jack Sweeney was banned, and so were all of his other flight tracking accounts, including those that tracked Mark Zuckerberg and Russian oligarchs. Twitter then retroactively added a new policy that banned accounts "dedicated to sharing someone's live location."
Musk then took to his personal account to launch a PR offensive. He said in a tweet, "Any account doxing real-time location info of anyone will be suspended, as it is a physical safety violation," but that "posting locations someone traveled to on a slightly delayed basis" will be allowed. He then went on to claim that a "crazy stalker" in LA had blocked a car carrying his child, X, and jumped on the hood. He posted a video of an unknown man and asked his 121 million followers if anyone recognized the car or the person driving it.
In the video, the masked man is sitting in a car and appears to say, "I'm not…" while an unknown man films and replies, "Yep, pretty sure." The man in the car takes out his own phone and films back, asking, "What's your name?" The camera pans around to put his license plate in view.
"Anyone recognize this person or car?" Musk tweeted, offering no further context.
It was a stunning, and disturbing, moment. The richest man in the world asking his millions of rabid fans to identify an individual—versus, say, going to the police—is reckless, and possibly dangerous, behavior. It aso flies in the face of his anti-doxing stance, even if it technically conforms to the new "delayed locations only" rule. Twitter also bans sharing video of private individuals, with the caveat that it could be newsworthy or relevant to public discourse on important topics. The video Musk shared is clearly neither, but he is the boss now, and nobody is going to tell him otherwise.
Musk's meltdown—which follows a public embarrassment where he was booed on stage at a Dave Chappelle show—had other troubling moments. He publicly threatened legal action against @elonjet creator Sweeney and "organizations who supported harm to my family." Again, Sweeney was doing nothing more than sharing legally-protected public information—the issue was that it bothered Musk.
Musk is free to moderate his new platform as he wishes. That was the entire premise of Twitter's previous approach, which, for all its failings, typically followed a corporate-bureaucratic process with many people giving input, as Musk's own Twitter Files have shown. Now, it's clear that Musk is running Twitter as his personal fiefdom, playing Calvinball with the rules, and his commitments to free speech and moderating within the law have gone out the window.