WASHINGTON — Democratic members of Congress had harsh words for Elon Musk on Thursday night after Twitter suddenly suspended a number of high-profile journalists who have been covering the company and Musk, its billionaire CEO.
"The gall of @elonmusk to ban respectable journalists doing important work from his platform while parading as some sort of champion of free speech is, quite frankly, detestable," tweeted Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y. "I’d ask if he feels any shame, but meaningful self-reflection may simply be beyond his capacity."
Ryan Mac of The New York Times, Donie O’Sullivan of CNN, Drew Harwell of The Washington Post, Matt Binder of Mashable, Micah Lee of The Intercept, Steve Herman of Voice of America and independent journalists Aaron Rupar, Keith Olbermann and Tony Webster all had their accounts suspended as of Thursday evening.
Musk indicated that the suspensions stemmed from the platform’s new rules banning private jet trackers.
Twitter began suspending accounts that track private jets, including one that tracks a jet owned by Musk called @ElonJet, on Wednesday.
In November, shortly after he took over Twitter, Musk tweeted that he would not ban the account. But this week, he decided that such accounts violated the site's "doxxing" rules about revealing nonpublic personal information.
"If anyone posted real-time locations & addresses of NYT reporters, FBI would be investigating, there’d be hearings on Capitol Hill & Biden would give speeches about end of democracy!" Musk tweeted Thursday night.
The immediate messages of support for the journalists, and outrage over Twitter's suspensions, all came from Democrats. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who has 13.4 million followers, tweeted that while she understood feeling unsafe, "descending into abuse of power + erratically banning journalists only increases the intensity around you."
"Take a beat and lay off the proto-fascism. Maybe try putting down your phone," she added.
The tweet caught the attention of Musk, who replied, "You first lol."
Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., said the company's actions seemed to run counter to assurances she received from Twitter officials earlier in the day.
She said her team had met with Twitter on Thursday and told it that "they’re not going to retaliate against independent journalists or researchers who publish criticisms of the platform."
"Less than 12 hours later, multiple technology reporters have been suspended. What’s the deal, @elonmusk?" Trahan tweeted at Musk.
Francis Grubar, a Trahan spokesperson, said it was a staff-level meeting that came about in response to a letter Trahan sent Twitter a couple of weeks ago "asking about the company’s plans for independent researcher access moving forward — particularly given the staff cuts."
In the letter, Trahan asked about whether the company would retaliate against researchers who publish reports with negative findings about Twitter.
"The company’s rep assured our team that it would not be retaliating against independent researchers or journalists for critical reports," Grubar told NBC News. "Obviously, the suspensions that happened less than 12 hours later immediately caught our attention."
Twitter did not reply to a request for comment on Trahan's tweet.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., tweeted in support of Rupar, a journalist who had around 800,000 followers. Rupar wrote on Substack that he had no idea why he was banned.
Khanna said Rupar "should not be suspended," adding, "If we stand for free speech, we need to stand for free speech for everyone."
Khanna has a different relationship with Musk and Twitter than other Democratic politicians. He was a key character in the "Twitter files" — a recent Twitter thread, blessed by Musk, by journalist Matt Taibbi that purportedly showed internal documents about how the company handled a critical news article about Hunter Biden in 2020.
Musk made it clear he did not agree with the way the company blocked people from tweeting and messaging about the article. Khanna popped up in the documents as someone else who questioned the company's decision at the time.
"Ro Khanna is great," Musk tweeted in response to one of some of the Twitter files.
Also Thursday, the Twitter account for Mastodon, which some disgruntled Twitter users have flocked to as an alternative site, was suspended. NBC News journalists were also unable to tweet links to Mastodon pages.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., called out the company for blocking Mastodon and tried to direct users to his account on the alternative platform anyway.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., tweeted: "Twitter can suspend whoever it wants. It’s a private company. That’s how free markets work. Which is why I’m tired of the snowflake MAGA-Nation babies — like @elonmusk — complaining about pre-Musk Twitter rules. The alternative MAGA-whiners want is government control (Communism)."