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Musk reinstates journalists on Twitter. However, their companies never left.


When Twitter abruptly suspended the accounts of several prominent journalists Thursday night — in response to a baffling claim by new owner Elon Musk that they had compromised his security — media executives were quick to speak out in protest.

The New York Times called the suspensions “questionable”. CNN said it would “re-evaluate” its relationship with Twitter. The Washington Post demanded that Twitter reinstate the account of one of the tech reporters “immediately,” noting that he had simply reported accurately about Musk. One news startup, Puck, said it would suspend its paid advertising campaign on Twitter, while another, Semafor, was evaluating its own marketing push, according to a spokesperson.

But without exception, these media organizations continued to tweet at their usual busy pace Thursday night and into Friday — using their own official accounts to promote their latest stories.

Musk justified the suspensions by accusing the reporters of posting “basically assassination coordinates” for him and his family — a reference, apparently, to their reporting and tweets about Twitter’s decision to suspend an account, @ElonJet, that had used public flight data to share the location of Musk’s private jet.

The Post could find no evidence that the reporters in question had shared information about Musk or his family’s location.

Early Saturday, after an informal Twitter poll by Musk, he said suspensions would be lifted immediately for “accounts that failed my position,” and several reporters’ accounts reappeared. Yet the reaction was the very conflicted, and apparently codependent, relationship between the news media and social media.

In the 15 years since sites like Twitter and Facebook exploded in popularity, traditional news outlets have decided to see them as much of an opportunity as a threat—powerful new vectors for delivering the news directly to the screens of eager readers. Publishers have invested heavily in staff whose primary role is to fine-tune and promote stories across social media; editors reward journalists who have amassed tens of thousands of Twitter followers for the traffic they can bring to their sites.

Some executives have begun to question whether Twitter traffic is actually worth the effort. Still, the modest response Friday to a maneuver that drew widespread rebuke from free-speech advocates — as well as from the European Commission, the United Nations and members of Congress — suggests they won’t be giving up anytime soon.

“How [else] are they going to get the word out? Unfortunately, Twitter is still the only real game in town,” said Vivian Schiller, a former president of NPR who also served as Twitter’s chief news officer in 2014. “Don’t get me wrong, Musk is a thin-skinned erratic hypocrite, but he’s got us over the moon ” she added, until another social media platform comes along to compete with it.

At least nine journalists, including Washington Post technology reporter Drew Harwell and New York Times reporter Ryan Mac, were hit by the suspensions, which the American Civil Liberties Union said were “impossible to match Twitter’s free speech aspirations.”

By early Saturday, some of those accounts had returned, but others appeared to remain locked until the offending tweet was deleted.

“I don’t know why I was suspended,” Business Insider’s Linette Lopez told The Post on Friday, “and I haven’t heard anything from Twitter.” Lopez noted that she had not written or tweeted about the controversy over Musk’s flight data, but that she had shared court documents pointing out how Musk had harassed critics and disclosed personal information about them in the past. Her account was still suspended early Saturday.

Free speech has been a rallying cry for Musk, the billionaire owner of Tesla and SpaceX, since he first moved earlier this year to buy Twitter and then made a point of repealing many of the company’s previous policies against hate speech and misinformation, rolling back a nearly two year’s ban by former President Donald Trump.

But even in conservative-leaning media, where Musk has been praised for reinstating Trump and other right-wing accounts, the suspensions were not equally praised.

On Friday morning, some of the hosts of the conservative Fox News talk show “Fox & Friends” expressed confusion. “This is crazy,” co-host Brian Kilmeade said. “If only they were critical of [Musk]he has to explain why these people were suspended,” co-host Steve Doocy said.

Ben Shapiro, founding editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire, admitted to some “schadenfreude” about reporters complaining about the move “given their enthusiasm for opaque Twitter censorship” — but seemed to take the problem with Musk’s argument that the suspended journalists had actually “doxed” his position. Fox News personality and radio host Dan Bongino said on his show that he did not agree to censoring or suspending journalists’ accounts, saying it could have the effect of simply bringing them more attention.

Some of the strongest criticism of Musk’s decision came from an ally.

“The old regime on Twitter ruled by its own whims and prejudices, and it seems the new regime has the same problem,” tweeted Bari Weiss, a former New York Times columnist. “I am against it in both cases. And I think those journalists who reported on a story of public importance should be reinstated.”

Weiss is one of the authors Musk recently tapped to lead his “Twitter Files” project, in which he has sent internal Twitter documents about content moderation as part of his larger campaign to demonstrate that the company’s former management treated conservative news sites unfairly . sand accounts.

Despite Musk’s claim last month that Twitter is “by far the biggest click driver on the internet,” a recent study by social analytics company DataReportal found that it was responsible for less than 8 percent of total social media referrals for the month of November 2021.

Media organizations do not usually share detailed data about web traffic. But a 2016 report using data from social analytics firm found that only 1.5 percent of publisher traffic came from Twitter. “Twitter has overall influence,” a Nieman Lab report concluded, “but it doesn’t generate much traffic for most news organizations.”

Meanwhile, media executives have struggled with how to establish standards of behavior for their journalists on social media, where the temptation can be to slip into a more hectic, more informal or more meaningful conversation than is allowed in their own professional writing—or to tailor their stories for their particular Twitter audience.

“The really insidious part of Twitter is that it’s very easy for even very good journalists to confuse the reaction they get on Twitter with the impact or reaction that their reporting or their work is getting in general,” said Joseph Kahn, managing editor of the New York Times, in an interview with The Post in June.

Now, the unpredictability of Twitter under Musk’s ownership further complicates the equation for media executives.

“It’s a battle between the reputational impact of supporting a volatile platform that simultaneously restores dangerous accounts while censoring legitimate journalists, and a journalistic responsibility to remain active in countering widespread misinformation and disinformation,” said a network executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak honestly.

There’s precedent for leaving Twitter: Fox News went silent on its official account from November 2018 to March 2020, reportedly over concerns that a photo with host Tucker Carlson’s home address had been shared on the platform. According to calculations released by the network, it had no negative impact on Fox’s web traffic.

In mid-November, CBS News went off Twitter for two days; one employee said the company was concerned it no longer had an official point of contact to help with security issues after a large employee exodus under Musk.

For a brief moment on Friday, a news organization appeared to be preparing a boycott of sorts, when the New York Times announced that it canceled a discussion to be held on Twitter’s “Spaces” that day about the best books of the year.

Instead, a spokesperson for the Times explained that the decision was made for “technical reasons”.

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