Musk bans Twitter account tracking his jet, threatens to sue creator


Jack Sweeney, a sophomore at the University of Central Florida, was a big fan of the billionaire industrialist Elon Musk. In 2020, Sweeney launched a Twitter account, @ElonJet, that used public air-travel data to map the flights of Musk’s private jet, thinking it’d be cool to track how Musk managed his business empire.

But when Sweeney woke up Wednesday morning, he was stunned to see that the 530,000-follower account on Twitter, the social media platform Musk bought in October, had been “permanently suspended” without explanation. A notice on Sweeney’s Twitter account said only that the company had, “after careful review … determined your account broke the Twitter rules,” without saying which rules it broke.

On Wednesday evening, the account was briefly restored, with Twitter outlining new rules seemingly designed to prevent Sweeney from posting the real-time locations of planes used by Musk and other public figures as long as he included a slight delay. Sweeney, over Twitter, asked Musk how long he’d have to delay the data to comply.

But Wednesday evening, Musk threatened to escalate the conflict against Sweeney, saying a car carrying Musk’s son, X Æ A-12, had been “followed by [a] crazy stalker” in Los Angeles, implying without providing evidence that location data had been a factor in the purported episode. “Legal action is being taken against Sweeney & organizations who supported harm to my family,” Musk tweeted.

Sweeney, 20, shared publicly available information about Musk’s flights, not his family members or his cars. The records stopped and ended at airports, and Musk has provided no further detail as to what legal basis Musk would cite in a lawsuit.

Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” had been critical of Sweeney’s account but pledged last month to keep it online, tweeting, “My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk.”

But to Sweeney, the abrupt suspension suggested Musk’s commitment to free expression ended as soon as it involved Musk’s personal life.

“I mean, this looks horrible. He literally said he was keeping my account up for free speech,” Sweeney said before Musk’s legal threat. “He’s trying to bring the company to profitability, and this is the last thing he needs.”

Sweeney’s other Twitter accounts, which tracked the air travel of college sports teams, celebrities and politicians, including Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, climate envoy John F. Kerry and former president Donald Trump, remained online for several hours after the Musk jet account was suspended.

But on Wednesday afternoon, after Sweeney began discussing the issue publicly, those accounts as well as Sweeney’s personal account were suspended.

Twitter also blocked people from tweeting a link to a version of the account Sweeney runs on Instagram. When a user tries to tweet the link, Twitter says, “We can’t complete this request because this link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful.”

A former Twitter employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the company previously had reviewed the account and determined it did not violate the company’s rules because the information it posted was available publicly. It was also not in violation of Twitter’s policy on private information, the former employee said.

Musk did not respond to requests for comment. Most of Twitter’s communications department has been laid off.

Sweeney shared a message from Twitter on Wednesday that said his personal account had been suspended for violating its rules against “platform manipulation and spam” because it had used Twitter to “artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience on Twitter.” It also said any of his attempts to create a new account would be suspended as well.

Sweeney’s personal account was not automated, and all of the jet-tracking accounts made explicit reference to the fact that they were automated accounts, which Twitter allows.

By Wednesday, an update appeared on Twitter’s private information and media policy that appeared to explicitly prohibit the type of activity conducted by Sweeney’s accounts. The new policy outlawed the sharing of “live location information, including information shared on Twitter directly or links to 3rd-party URL(s) of travel routes, actual physical location, or other identifying information that would reveal a person’s location, regardless if this information is publicly available.”

The Wayback Machine, an internet archive, showed that the page was updated sometime within the last day. In a tweet late Wednesday, Musk said, “Real-time posting of someone else’s location violates doxxing policy, but delayed posting of locations are ok.”

Sweeney said he started the @ElonJet account in 2020 by using a publicly available set of records documenting all planes’ air travel, known as ADS-B data, to give a general outline of where and when the jet was landing and taking off.

The Washington Post had a year earlier used similar records to report on Musk’s management style and raise questions about the frequent flights’ financial and environmental costs.

On Twitter, the @ElonJet account had become a reliable way for critics, fans and investors to track Musk’s whereabouts as his plane hopped from the Austin area, where he lives, to the San Francisco Bay area, where his carmaker Tesla maintains its factory, and to Southern California, where SpaceX, one of Musk’s other companies, is based.

The movement of the jet did not necessarily indicate that Musk was on board, and the account provided no details on who flew with Musk or where he went once the plane had landed.

Musk offered Sweeney $5,000 to buy the @ElonJet account last year, the website Protocol reported in January, but the two men couldn’t come to a deal after Sweeney countered with an asking price of $50,000. Musk had opened their exchange asking: “Can you take this down? It is a security risk.” He added in a direct message cited by Protocol, “I don’t love the idea of being shot by a nutcase.”

Sweeney told The Post in October, shortly after Musk’s $44 billion Twitter takeover, that he didn’t believe his account would be taken down. “I personally think he won’t do it because then the news would be all over it and he would be called a hypocrite,” he said.

But Sweeney said then that he had begun creating similar accounts on other social media platforms “just in case something happens” and was considering making a backup account in case of an outright ban.

Earlier this week, Sweeney began to worry about the account’s future. Sweeney shared a screenshot he said was sent to him by a Twitter employee that purported to show a Twitter executive asking to apply heavy “visibility filtering” to the @ElonJet account “immediately.” The Post could not independently confirm the message.

Such “visibility filtering” measures have been at the center of debates over whether Twitter was “shadow banning” conservatives. A bundle of documents Musk granted to select journalists, called the Twitter Files, showed that company moderators had used “visibility filtering” to limit the spread of content Twitter executives had seen as harmful in a way Musk had said was oppressive.

The sudden banning of the jet account, followed by its reversal as new rules were unveiled, potentially adds to the spate of rash decisions Musk has made since taking over Twitter. Musk fired Twitter’s top executives upon arriving, conducted steep layoffs that cut the staff in half and issued an ultimatum to workers to commit to an “extremely hardcore” Twitter or accept a severance package.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that Twitter had not paid rent for its San Francisco headquarters in weeks. A person with knowledge of the arrangements, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss them, confirmed to The Post that Twitter had stopped paying its rent and appeared to be vacating one of its two buildings, an office building housing Twitter’s main lobby.

Much of the company’s equipment, including a Twitter logo statue, industrial-grade kitchen appliances and office electronics, recently appeared on an auction website.

Workers had been instructed to pull all remaining office equipment from one of Twitter’s buildings, the person said. The plan, the person said, was to remove all of the equipment and cease payment. Workers, including Twitter’s own staffers, were hauling items such as chairs and commercial kitchen equipment down an industrial elevator.

The rash and seemingly overnight decision to effectively downsize Twitter from two buildings to one caught many workers by surprise. “They’ve basically shut off that entire building and the bridge to it,” the person said.

Sweeney said Wednesday he was working to assure the accounts remained active on other platforms, including on the chat and social media services Facebook, Instagram and Telegram. He also created an account on Mastodon, a Twitter competitor, early Wednesday that gained 7,000 followers within a few hours.

The episode, Sweeney said, has led him to question his original enthusiasm about Musk’s business genius.

“There’s a little side of him that seems like he can’t stand some people, and I think he just had enough,” he said. “Every move he’s making is giving him worse PR.”

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