technology

Elon Musk's Twitter Barbs Have New Magnitude


For years,

Elon Musk

has used Twitter to provoke, pontificate and go on the offensive against criticism and perceived threats from rivals, regulators and regular folks.

His flame-throwing has a new magnitude—and the perception of impunity—now that Mr. Musk owns the social-media platform where he has been a so-called superuser for years.

The world’s second-richest man, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has more than 120 million Twitter followers, about 10 million shy of former President

Barack Obama.

In the weeks since he purchased Twitter Inc. in October, Mr. Musk has made it clear that those who trigger his ire should be prepared for him to use it to target them. In recent days, for example, he has attacked

Yoel Roth,

who until about a month ago was a high-ranking Twitter executive, with unsubstantiated insinuations that he was an advocate of sexualizing children. He also called for the prosecution of

Anthony Fauci,

President Biden’s chief medical adviser and the government’s top infectious-disease official, based on his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And Mr. Musk has threatened to set his rhetorical crosshairs on Twitter’s advertisers, many of whom have cut or halted spending because of their concerns about his management of the company and his behavior on the platform since taking over.

In the wake of what he called “a massive drop in revenue” in early November, Mr. Musk responded to a supporter’s tweet suggesting he name advertisers who cut spending by vowing: “A thermonuclear name & shame is exactly what will happen if this continues.”

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Some advertisers have been vocal about their concerns, while others have refrained from changing their spending on Twitter or discussing their worries publicly because they fear that Mr. Musk will publicly target them for criticism, unleashing a backlash from his followers, according to ad buyers.

“Some marketers are afraid of drawing unwelcomed attention from Elon,” Lou Paskalis, a veteran marketing executive, said. Companies are also “very concerned about what Elon’s acolytes might do to their brands if they publicly distanced themselves from the platform.”

Mr. Musk recently confronted

Apple Inc.,

claiming it curbed ad spending on Twitter and asked, “Do they hate free speech in America?”—before tweeting two days later that he and the iPhone maker had resolved their issues. Apple hasn’t commented.

Twitter’s harassment policy, posted on its site, says it aims to facilitate healthy dialogue.



Photo:

constanza hevia/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mr. Musk has said he wants to ensure that Twitter remains open to competing ideas—even ones that offend—and has suggested that he welcomes criticism on the platform.

“I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means,” he tweeted earlier this year, the day Twitter accepted his offer.

He also has suggested that dissemination of attacks on Twitter will be curtailed, tweeting last month: “New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach. Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter.” It’s unclear if any related rules have been implemented.

Twitter’s harassment policy currently posted on its site says it aims to facilitate healthy dialogue. “We prohibit behavior that harasses or intimidates, or is otherwise intended to shame or degrade others,” it says, adding that abusive behavior can threaten people’s safety and lead to physical and emotional hardship.

In recent years, social-media companies including Twitter and

Meta Platforms Inc.’s

Facebook have faced some of their thorniest issues over incidents that arose from someone using their platforms in ways that incite harassment of a person—akin to what some fear from Mr. Musk’s own behavior on the platform.

“There are clear questions that if the terms of service are violated, who’s going to rein him in, who’s gonna put the brakes on that?” said Brianna Wu, a former Democratic congressional candidate and software engineer who received threats during the so-called GamerGate incident almost a decade ago when women coders faced intense harassment online.

“If you have a big platform, you have to think carefully about how you use it,” she said, “because it’s very clear, once you start accusing people of being pedophiles, if you have a very large platform, you know what the outcome is going to be.”

As soon as Mr. Musk tweeted on Saturday in a way that misrepresented the academic writing of Mr. Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety—suggesting he was in favor of children having access to adult internet services—people raised concerns for Mr. Roth’s safety.

In the wake of harassment following Mr. Musk’s tweets, Mr. Roth has moved out of his house temporarily because of threats, according to a person familiar with the situation. CNN earlier reported on Mr. Roth’s safety concerns.

Twitter has been in turmoil since Elon Musk took over. To get a sense of what’s going on behind the scenes, The Wall Street Journal spoke with former Tesla and SpaceX employees to better understand how Musk leads companies. Illustration: Ryan Trefes

The sharp turn that Mr. Musk took on Mr. Roth contrasts with how he defended him and praised him in October, when he wrote in a tweet: “My sense is that he has high integrity, and we are all entitled to our political beliefs.”

But Mr. Musk’s tone changed after Mr. Roth left the company and went public with concerns about content moderation under the new regime.

In April, Mr. Musk was asked at a TED conference about his habit of engaging in public fights rather than taking the high road.

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“I’m sort of a mixed bag,” Mr. Musk responded, chuckling. “I don’t like to lose—I’m not sure many people do—but the truth matters to me a lot…like sort of pathologically it matters to me.”

Mr. Musk has shown that he is aware of the power of his following on Twitter. When

Tesla Inc.,

where he is CEO, struggled to deliver Model 3 compact cars in 2018, Mr. Musk put out a tweet seeking volunteers to help out by educating new owners, and they obliged him.

On other occasions, his followers have taken his lead in more hostile ways. He targeted a professor who was appointed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a top adviser, tweeting: “Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla.” The adviser, Mary “Missy” Cummings, a Duke University engineering professor who had been critical of Tesla’s advanced driver-assistance system, faced a barrage of criticism, often vulgar, after Mr. Musk’s tweet.

At Twitter, Mr. Musk has overseen the release of internal company documents that have included names and emails of workers, subjecting them to the harsh light of public scrutiny. Some observers have suggested the release of the private details violated Twitter’s terms of service for so-called doxing. Mr. Musk has said releasing the unredacted details was a mistake.

“Publicly posting the names and identities of front-line employees involved in content moderation puts them in harm’s way and is a fundamentally unacceptable thing to do,” Mr. Roth said on the social platform Mastodon at the time.

Mr. Musk has been more sensitive about his own information.

On Wednesday, the account that used public data to track Mr. Musk’s private plane was suspended. Jack Sweeney, a student at the University of Central Florida who ran the account, said he wasn’t given a reason for the move. Mr. Sweeney created an algorithm that calculated the whereabouts of the jet using public data from plane transponders that log longitude, latitude and altitude.

Mr. Sweeney’s personal account and several other ones he held were also suspended.

Mr. Musk suggested the account violated Twitter’s terms of service. “Real-time posting of someone else’s location violates doxing policy, but delayed posting of locations are ok,” Mr. Musk wrote, adding later that tracking of his location endangered his family.

On Thursday, Twitter suspended the accounts of several journalists, some of which had referenced a version of Mr. Sweeney’s flight-tracking feature that remained active on some other platforms.

The accounts belonged to journalists from publications including CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times and Mashable.

A spokesman for the Times said neither it nor its reporter had received any explanation about why his account was suspended. A spokesperson for CNN said it asked Twitter for an explanation and will re-evaluate its relationship with the platform based on its response. WaPo didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ella Irwin, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, declined in an email to comment on specific user accounts. She cited Twitter’s policy update Wednesday barring the posting of “live location information,” including travel routes or other information. “We don’t make exceptions to this policy for journalists or any other accounts,” Ms. Irwin added.

Twitter also suspended the official account of Mastodon, a competing social media platform that has gained prominence in recent months, also without explanation. The account had tweeted earlier in the day: “Did you know? You can follow @ElonJet on Mastodon over at mastodon.social/@elonjet.”

Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com and Alexa Corse at alexa.corse@wsj.com

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