For weeks, Elon Musk applied his top-notch middle-school bully tactics to NPR on his failing social media network, Twitter. First Musk tagged NPR as “state-affiliated media,” which is not, and never was true. This resulted in NPR having the same label as actual state-owned propaganda sites such as China’s Xinhua News Agency or Russia’s RT. When it was pointed out that Twitter’s own rules used NPR as an example of public media companies that were not state owned, he took the obvious step of ordering someone to rewrite the rules, removing the reference to NPR. Then, under a flood of complaints, Musk changed the tag on NPR to "Government Funded Media," which is also a lie. Less than 1% of NPR’s funding comes from the federal government.
All of this appears to be just Musk causing trouble to justify what he wanted to do in the first place—remove all the warning labels that previously pointed out genuine propaganda that justified Russia’s wars and China’s human rights abuses. And following this debacle, NPR announced that it, along with all its programs, would no longer be using Twitter to spread news stories or update the public. So Musk not only managed to make the world safer for the worst propaganda outlets, he also diminished the ways in which people can access genuine news. For Musk, that’s got to be a very good day.
Only now Musk is feeling bad that he doesn’t have NPR around to pick on anymore. So he chased them down to send them a fresh threat. As NPR reported on Tuesday evening, Musk sent a series of emails to NPR reporter Bobby Allyn, threatening to give NPR’s Twitter handle, @NPR, to “another company.”
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Following NPR’s departure, other news organizations, including PBS and the Canadian Broadcasting System, have also stopped using Twitter. The fact that journalists don’t like being mislabeled, or put on par with organizations designed to create and spread disinformation, seems to have frustrated Musk.
In an unsolicited email to Allyn, Musk asked, "So is NPR going to start posting on Twitter again, or should we reassign @NPR to another company?"
Twitter’s terms of service don’t require that an account post to be active. It only requires that someone log into the account every thirty days. That didn’t stop Musk from following up with a second email saying, “Our policy is to recycle handles that are definitively dormant. Same policy applies to all accounts. No special treatment for NPR.”
Musk refused to say whether he was changing the terms of service—though it certainly would not be the first time. In addition to his flurry of changes to justify his attacks on public media outlets, Musk has previously altered the terms to make it permissible to attack trans individuals. Previously, Twitter’s terms of service included a sentence noting that their definition of unacceptable conduct, “includes targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals." Musk ordered that sentence removed. In addition, Musk has ordered the reinstatement of accounts for individuals and organizations previously banned for racism, misogyny, and encouraging violence.
As Bloomberg reported in March, Musk’s “antics” have driven away advertisers by the score, leaving Twitter dependent on the kind of low-rent commercials that used to decorate the Tucker Carlson show.
From September to October of last year, the top 10 advertisers on Twitter spent $71 million on ads, according to estimates from Sensor Tower. In the past two months, that figure dropped to just $7.6 million, a decline of 89%, the research firm said. Twitter’s top ad customers historically have included marquee names like HBO, Amazon, IBM and Coca-Cola.
That would be “historically.” As in B.M.—Before Musk.
The new threats against NPR are likely to speed the departure of other news outlets, further diminishing the already shrinking value of Musk’s vanity purchase. Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, noted to NPR news that Musk’s email represents an “extraordinary threat” and predicted it could lead to an “even more of a rapid retreat by media organizations and other brands that don't think it's worth the risk.”
Over the last month, Musk has repeatedly given credence to right-wing conspiracy theories, used his personal account to attack President Joe Biden and other Democratic lawmakers, and changed his screen name to “Harry Bolz.” All of which is pretty extraordinary behavior for someone who claims he’s trying to recover some value from his $44 billion investment. Meanwhile the platform is experiencing an increase in technical issues, some of which are likely related to drastic changes Musk has ordered to support his disastrous “Twitter blue” paid checkmarks, or his closing down of Twitter’s previously free API, which caused many services that people depended on to fail overnight.
The API changes not only cut-off data for researchers, it left many sites cut off from their ability to post. That included even emergency warnings from the National Weather Service and service updates from local utilities. Musk was eventually forced to backtrack on charging government agencies, but not before some agencies and organizations simply bailed out. That includes New York’s Metro Transit Authority, who will no longer post train delays and bus route changes on Twitter because “reliability of the platform can no longer be guaranteed.”
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In April, Musk ordered Wired reporter Dell Cameron’s account permanently blocked for reporting on a hacker who had targeted far-right commentator Matt Walsh. Twitter’s terms forbid using information that is gained through hacking, but explicitly carve out an exception stating they will “defer to the editorial judgment” of news outlets sourcing stories from hacked materials, and that a story that includes information from these materials “would result in a label or warning message, not removal of the Tweet(s) from Twitter.”
Cameron’s account remains suspended over a month later. Wired posted a statement seeking clarification. That clarification did not arrive. As many sites have pointed out, Musk likes to call himself a “free speech absolutist” unless it’s speech he doesn’t like.
At the same time that he’s supposedly trying to woo advertisers back, Musk is taking actions that are causing Twitter to lose the accounts that made users come to Twitter in the first place. But then, Musk has never seen the site as anything other than a place to bully others and show off his gross, third-grade humor. For him, it’s a $44 billion version of the fart mode he had engineers add to Tesla cars.
On Monday, Musk cut Twitter’s parental leave policy from 20 weeks to just 14 days. It’s just one of what was described as “a slew of cost-cutting measures to offset a plunge in revenue.” Somehow, the fact that Twitter employees used to get time at home with a newborn doesn’t seem like the problem.
That people might want a site that gathers together breaking news baffles him, because he doesn’t care about the news. That others might be interested in a flight update, or a warning that their train is going to be late is even more puzzling to Musk. His plane goes where he tells it to whenever he wants. For him, Twitter only exists as a place to own the libs and commensurate with racists complaining about the “woke mind virus.” And he either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care, that other people don’t want to support such a site.
If every action Musk takes signals that he’s trying to kill Twitter, not save it, it seems to be because he never understood what was valuable about the site in the first place.
Dimitri of WarTranslated has been doing the essential work of translating hours of Russian and Ukrainian video and audio during the invasion of Ukraine. He joins Markos and Kerry from London to talk about how he began this work by sifting through various sources. He is one of the only people translating information for English-speaking audiences. Dimitri’s followed the war since the beginning and has watched the evolution of the language and dispatches as the war has progressed.