A Vengeful Musk

Elon Musk’s confusing rationale for suspending @ElonJet

The Twitter owner claims to be a free-speech advocate. So why is he suspending and suing Jack Sweeney?
Elon Musk’s confusing rationale for suspending @ElonJet
Photo: Patrick Pleul (Getty Images)
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Elon Musk has plenty of online foes, but no one seems to annoy him quite like Jack Sweeney.

Sweeney, a 20-year-old student at the University of Central Florida, set up an account called @ElonJet in June 2020 that would tweet the whereabouts of Elon Musk’s private jet, a Gulfstream G650ER, based on publicly available transponder data.

Twitter suspended @ElonJet, and later Sweeney’s personal account, on Wednesday, Dec. 14. A few hours and an uproar later, Musk explained himself.

“Any account doxxing real-time location info of anyone will be suspended, as it is a physical safety violation. This includes posting links to sites with real-time location info,” Musk tweeted. He clarified that posting delayed location data, however, is okay and wouldn’t violate the new policy.

It was a surprising turnaround. Just one month ago, Musk tweeted that he would not ban the @ElonJet account: “My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk.”

Now, Musk says he plans to sue Sweeney for endangering his family.

The new policy seems to violate Musk’s own broadly-defined understanding of free speech, which since the billionaire owner took over the company two months ago, has allowed the spread of both covid misinformation and racial slurs.

Twitter’s confusing new location data policy

Here’s how an official Twitter account explained the new rule:

“When someone shares an individual’s live location on Twitter, there is an increased risk of physical harm,” the account wrote. “Moving forward, we’ll remove Tweets that share this information, and accounts dedicated to sharing someone else’s live location will be suspended.”

Tweets that share “historical” location data, which the account specified to mean “not [from the] same day,” will not violate the policy. The account added that tweets showing “public engagement,” such as a concert or political events, will also not violate the policy.

A policy that protects average users from real-world threats when their location is shared would be reasonable, but Twitter’s new policy is too vague to make this happen. There are often real-world threats to tweeting a person’s live location, but there are also plenty of examples where it’s no threat at all. With a decimated content moderation team, it’s unlikely Twitter has the ability to distinguish between the two and effectively enforce the new policy.

It seems more likely that Twitter will selectively reserve the policy for when—inevitably—another user starts tweeting out the location of Musk’s private plane.

Here are a few scenarios that may or may not violate the new policy:

  • A congressional reporter tweets a photo of Senator Chuck Schumer walking on the street toward the Capitol building
  • A fan tweets that Taylor Swift is walking around a specific neighborhood in New York
  • A user tweets a photo of a cop a few hours after a wrongful arrest
  • A protester tweets a photo showing a group of people marching in real-time
  • A tourist tweets a photo of a friend at the Eiffel Tower

Elon Musk threatens to sue

Musk appears to be hand-crafting Twitter’s policies based not on academic research or expert opinion, but on caprice and personal vendetta. Musk, for instance, dissolved Twitter’s so-called “Trust and Safety Council,” a group comprised of outside experts meant to help monitor online harassment, human rights, and child exploitation, among other things.

And now Musk claims that not only did Sweeney violate Twitter’s rules—which Twitter formally introduced after it suspended Sweeney’s account—but also that he broke the law.

“Last night, car carrying lil X in LA was followed by crazy stalker (thinking it was me), who later blocked car from moving & climbed onto hood. Legal action is being taken against Sweeney & organizations who supported harm to my family.” (To translate: “lil X” refers to Musk’s son X Æ A-Xii Musk.)

The connection to Sweeney doesn’t quite add up: @ElonJet last tweeted that Musk’s plane arrived in Los Angeles on Monday night. Musk claimed that his stalker attacked on Tuesday night.

And while it’s deplorable that anyone would physically attack Musk or his family, Sweeney’s automated account only tweeted Musk’s jet arrival location—like it has done after every flight Musk has taken for two years—based on publicly available data. Still, it’s likely Sweeney will face the wrath of the world’s richest man—or second-richest man, actually—and his lawyers very soon.

Free speech is whatever Elon Musk says it is 

Musk promised that Twitter would not only be a haven for free speech, but would also whittle its content moderation policies down to a nub. “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law,” Musk tweeted in April, one day after inking his $44 billion deal to buy Twitter.

But Musk isn’t helming an anything-goes, laissez-faire playground. He promised advertisers that Twitter wouldn’t become a “hellscape,” for instance. Instead, he seems to be using his control of Twitter to exact revenge on his enemies—even when they’re 20-year-old college students.

There is a legal term called a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or a SLAPP. It’s essentially when a public official sues someone to stop them from expressing their first amendment-protected speech. (Picture a political candidate suing a newspaper columnist for writing critical opinions about them.) These lawsuits are designed to intimidate critics and chill free speech. 32 states and Washington DC have passed anti-SLAPP laws to clamp down on this kind of behavior. If Musk sues Sweeney, he’ll likely find out that California and Florida both have anti-SLAPP laws already on the books.

Twitter has a legal right under the first amendment to moderate content as it sees fit—even if those decisions seem unfair to outside critics or affected users. While Musk’s policies and enforcement might be hypocritical and vengeful, they aren’t illegal. But Musk’s legal threats are serious. They pose a threat not only to Sweeney, but to everyone who criticizes him on his own platform.