Why has Elon Musk — the purported champion of free speech — blocked me on Twitter?

It’s not only journalists. Musk has also blocked Public Citizen, a Washington DC-based nonprofit watchdog group that says it has been ‘standing up to corporate power and holding government accountable for 50 years’

Andrew Buncombe
Wednesday 27 April 2022 20:41 BST
<p>Elon Musk has said Twitter will help defend conversation and debate</p>

Elon Musk has said Twitter will help defend conversation and debate

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The truth is, I don’t know why and I don’t know when.

I have to assume it’s not anything to do with money; he, after all, is the richest man in the world. I am not.

I am scratching my brains to think of anything I’ve said ill of the man. As everyone knows, I am the same cheery soul on social media as I am in real life. (Okay, that might be pushing it.)

Yet, the short of it is that Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and well-known tech wizard, would-be real-life superhero of our age, has blocked me on Twitter.

It ain’t the greatest hardship. Someone else can tell me what the 50-year-old has to say, should I need to know. (In truth, and as my editor rather meanly but accurately pointed out, taking the time to block a humble reporter of my ilk would seem to be a job below Musk’s pay grade.) But nevertheless it all feels a little bit odd given that Musk, who just paid $44bn for Twitter, vowed to establish it as safeguard for free speech.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he announced when the sale was made public. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”

In the days since it was announced that the man who wants to help colonize Mars was buying Twitter, rumors have abounded that a tweak has already been given the site’s algorithm, permitting the tweets of some right-wingers — people such as conservative commentator Michelle Malkin — to show up in people’s feeds for the first time in a long time. Who knows if this is actually the case?

I am sure there will be all sort of changes that will take place in the near future, some more quickly than others. We know, for instance, that Musk wants to introduce an “edit” function to the site. But blocking journalists is not a good thing, not for anyone.

It’s not only journalists, either. Musk has blocked Public Citizen, a Washington DC-based watchdog group that says it has been “standing up to corporate power and holding government accountable for 50 years”. The nonprofit tweeted on Wednesday that Musk’s blocking of it “would not  not going to stop us from breaking up Big Tech, fighting corporate power, and holding the rich accountable”. It used the news of its exclusion from Musk’s account as a fundraising opportunity, adding: “Chip in $1, $5, or more and help rein in Big Tech.”

As I said, I don’t know why Musk blocked me. I am not a tech writer, but I do occasionally cover what he is up to and the powerful hold he has over our society.

On Monday evening, after it was announced that the sale was going through, I retweeted a tweet of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who in turn had retweeted a post pointing out China was the second-most important market for Tesla, and that since 2009 when Twitter was banned in China, the Chinese authorities had no leverage over the platform. Was that set to change? “Interesting question,” wrote Bezos. “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?”

My annotation to the Amazon founder’s words felt pretty harmless: “World’s second-richest man weighs in on Twitter’s purchase by wealthiest”.

Did that innocuous comment somehow get read by Musk, who then pressed the block button? Or does he have a social media team that does such work for him?

Unfortunately, we don’t know. Twitter’s press office did not respond to The Indepedent’s questions as to why one of its reporters had been blocked by the company’s owner, and whether it set a rather poor example.

Wealthy men (and sometimes wealthy women) have always owned the bulk of our media. Corporations, along with tycoons and businesspeople — people such as Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, and Bezos, who in 2013 bought the Washington Post — have for generations owned the companies that control our newspapers and television networks and websites. It is far from ideal, to say the very least.

And their ownership of social media, something one might hope to be more freed-up and more democratic, also rankles. There’s something to be said for new models of ownership and collective control as being trialed by sites such as Mastodon — “the decentralised Twitter”, as one headline put it.

In the mean time, we have what we have. And if Elon Musk really wants to improve Twitter, then it’s time to shape up. He could start by unblocking me

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