Twitter has suspended the accounts of several journalists who had been critical of — or had otherwise reported on — Elon Musk.
In a tweet late Thursday, Musk, the owner since late October of the social network, explained that the suspensions came about because the journalists had “doxxed him” by giving his “exact location in real-time.”
What is doxxing? Doxxing is releasing nonpublic information about people who are often not public figures. This information could include home addresses, phone numbers, names of employers or other private information.
Though that seems like a cut-and-dried explanation, there’s more to it than that.
“It’s a gray area,” said Bill Budington, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital-rights group. In a phone call with MarketWatch, Budington defined doxxing as “the process of someone getting information from public sources or nonpublic sources and creating a dossier of information about someone.” This information can include phone numbers, property, social-media accounts, occupations, employer information or the contents of a hack.
Importantly, Budington said that the motivation for doxxing was “usually harassing.”
That’s different from run-of-the-mill information dissemination — as is done in, for example, journalism. Although good reporting can unearth private information, it’s all about “legitimate public interest,” according to Budington. And knowing where one of the richest people in the world — someone who now owns one of the largest social-media sites — is going could be considered a matter of public interest, even if that person is flying on a private jet.
Was Elon Musk doxxed? The path to the suspensions began with the establishment by Jack Sweeney, a Florida student, of the Twitter account @ElonJet, which tracked the movements of Musk’s private plane. Flights by private jets are publicly available information, and private flights have been tracked for a long time. A similar account, dedicated to tracking the private plane of Jeff Bezos, had also been suspended as of Friday morning.
“I think this falls pretty far underneath the threshold of what’s considered doxxing,” Budington said. “For instance, it’s information that’s publicly available. It’s publicized by the FAA, and all flight records are available on the web already. It’s not gathering information from various sources. It’s not for harassment.”
After journalists posted about the removals, some of them, including reporters from the New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post — as well as independent reporters and pundits who had been critical of the decision to ban Musk’s jet-tracking account — had their Twitter accounts suddenly suspended.
Suspended accounts also included the Twitter profile for a rival social network called Mastodon, which did not seem to have provided any personal information about Musk or his jet.
See: Elon Musk told journalists, ‘You dox, you get suspended’ on Twitter Spaces — and then the group chat feature went dark
Musk had said in November that his “commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk.” But, on Wednesday night, he alleged that “a car carrying his child” was “followed by a crazy stalker” and posted a video that showed a masked driver and license plate, asking users, “Anybody recognize this person or car?”
What is Twitter’s doxxing policy? According to the company’s private information and media policy, users “may not publish or post other people’s private information without their express authorization and permission. We also prohibit threatening to expose private information or incentivizing others to do so.”
This month, the “Twitter files,” lengthy threads of tweets penned by select journalists and hyped by Musk himself, released information about former company insiders. including co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, and the private email address of a member of Congress. That was called an act of doxxing by the Verge, and is prohibited by the company’s policy, which bars the release of contact information, including nonpublic personal phone numbers or email addresses.
The “Twitter files” themselves centered partly around decisions made by the company about how to promote stories or tweets about contents of a laptop said to have belonged to but been abandoned by Hunter Biden, the president’s son. These files included naked pictures and emails that Biden did not authorize to be published.
Musk did not approve of Twitter’s decision at the time to prevent the spread of that doxxed material. The company’s policy on prohibited media includes “media of private individuals without the permission of the person(s) depicted.”
A request for comment from Twitter was not answered.