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Twitter suspends users for imitating Elon Musk in early test of his free speech stance

The moves raise questions about whether the mogul, a self-proclaimed "free speech absolutist," plans to hold true to that vision — or put tighter limits on what users can say.
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Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery — although Twitter owner Elon Musk may not see it that way.

The comedian Kathy Griffin, YouTube personality Ethan Klein and "Mad Men" actor Rich Sommer each say their Twitter accounts were suspended over the weekend after they impersonated Musk, changing their display names and profile photos to match those of the billionaire.

The decisions to lock all three out of their Twitter accounts come as Musk, a self-proclaimed "free speech absolutist," draws intense scrutiny for how he handles speech issues on the platform. He has pledged to make the service a destination for accurate information, but has also suggested he may loosen the platform's rules.

Musk has also said the company is planning major changes to Twitter’s verification system, opening it up to anyone willing to pay a monthly fee. That idea has caused some concern about security, safety and impersonation on the platform, which appears to be a primary motivating factor for the wave of people suddenly imitating Musk on Twitter.

Musk’s team on Friday laid off roughly half the workforce in a bid to cut costs, rattling veteran employees and riveting much of Silicon Valley. The changes to the platform, combined with the reduction of Twitter's workforce, left some people worried that the service will have trouble enforcing its rules against misinformation and impersonation.

Before Musk took over the company, Twitter had rules against impersonating other accounts “to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.” Parody or fan accounts were instructed to mark in their account name that they were separate from the account they were parodying.

Griffin, Klein and Sommer all appeared to change their account names on their verified profiles to "Elon Musk" without indicating that they were parodying his account.

The suspensions hint at a growing adversarial relationship between Musk and Twitter users who have expressed skepticism of his motives for making changes. Musk and his deputies — including the tech investor David Sacks and key Twitter lieutenant Yoel Roth — proceeded to explain and defend their personnel decisions on Twitter itself, mixing it up with average users and high-profile figures alike.

Musk, who acquired Twitter in a $44 billion deal, tweeted Sunday afternoon that "going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying 'parody' will be permanently suspended."

As of Monday morning, many Twitter accounts still featured "Elon Musk" in their display names, while others added the "parody" disclaimer. The issue rippled across the service, with "parody," "Kathy Griffin" and "Ethan Klein" all trending on Twitter at various times.

Griffin, a stand-up comedian known for making provocative public statements, apparently drew Musk's ire after she used her parody "Elon Musk" account to urge people to vote for Democrats in Tuesday's midterm elections.

"I've decided that voting blue for their choice is only right," she wrote as Musk, who has recently embraced the Republican Party, endorsed the GOP in a tweet Monday,

Kathy Griffin performs at 2019 Best In Drag Benefiting Aid for AIDS at Orpheum Theatre on October 06, 2019 in Los Angeles.
Kathy Griffin performs in Los Angeles, on Oct.6, 2019. Chelsea Guglielmino / Getty Images file

It was not immediately clear whether Griffin's suspension was permanent. Her representatives and Twitter's public relations representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment Sunday.

Musk did not shy away from mocking Griffin on his own terms, though. In a reply to a tweet from the conservative personality Benny Johnson, Musk joked: "Actually, she was suspended for impersonating a comedian."

"But if she really wants her account back, she can have it," he went on to say, adding in a follow-up tweet: "For $8." Musk has said he intends to charge $8 for the premium Twitter Blue product, which he says will include Twitter verification.

Sacks, who regularly writes about politics from a right-leaning or libertarian perspective, appeared to dismiss concerns about the implications of Griffin's suspension in tweets to his more than 462,000 followers Monday.

"What the Kathy Griffin uproar amounts to: A bunch of elites who support censorship telling free speech advocates that we’re not sufficiently based unless we permit identity theft. Not a serious argument and we certainly don’t need lectures from you," he tweeted.

Griffin was not the only public figure who attempted to test the limits of impersonating on Musk's platform.

In a series of posts on Instagram, Klein, a popular internet personality, posted screenshots that he said were messages informing him that his Twitter account had been “permanently suspended” after he sent a tweet in the guise of Musk that could be viewed as controversial.

In a caption to one of the screenshots, Klein wrote: "Comedy is dead elon musk killed it." In another caption, he wrote: "I'm glad it's over. I can finally rest." (NBC News took screenshots of Klein's Instagram Story before the posts automatically disappeared.)

Sommer, best known for playing 1960s advertising executive Harry Crane on "Mad Men," apparently ran afoul of the Musk team's policies and saw his account suspended, too

In a statement to NBC News on Monday, Sommer confirmed that he had been "permanently suspended" from Twitter.

"I’m not mad at them for suspending me. I broke the rules. But if people genuinely thought I was Elon Musk with '@richsommer' right there at the top of each tweet, imagine how difficult will be to discern the veracity of anyone’s identity once they sell a blue check to anyone with eight bucks," he said.

"If Twitter merely recommits to actually verifying the identity of users before offering them, you know, verification, then it will be a slightly (barely) safer place," the actor added.

Justin Sherin, a playwright who offers daily political commentary on Twitter in the voice of former President Richard Nixon via the @dick_nixon handle, tweeted Sunday that he may transfer his social media presence to Instagram in light of Musk's crackdown.

"I have broken character, I think, half a dozen times in ten years. I’ve never called RN 'parody' because I rather hope he’s more than that," Sherin tweeted. "Given the new, uh, policy, I think it’s wise to tell you I can be reached" at his Instagram profile.