SAN FRANCISCO (AP): Twitter has suspended an account that used publicly available flight data to track Elon Musk’s private jet, despite a pledge by the social media platform’s new owner to keep it up because of his free speech principles.
Tweets from the widely followed @elonjet account were no longer viewable Wednesday. The account had more than 526,000 followers as of Tuesday.
“He said this is free speech and he’s doing the opposite,” said Jack Sweeney, the 20-year-old college sophomore and programmer who started the flight-tracking account, in an interview with The Associated Press.
Started in 2020 when Sweeney was a teenager, the account automatically posted the Gulfstream jet’s flights with a map and an estimate of the amount of jet fuel and carbon emissions it expended.
Sweeney said he woke up Wednesday to a flood of messages from people who saw that @elonjet was suspended and all its tweets had disappeared. He logged into Twitter and saw a notice that the account was permanently suspended for breaking Twitter’s rules. But the note didn’t explain which rules were broken.
“I haven’t heard anything else, sadly,” said Sweeney, who said he has already filed an online form to appeal the suspension.
The University of Central Florida student said Musk last year sent him a private message offering $5,000 to take it down, citing security concerns. Musk later stopped communicating to Sweeney, who never deleted the account. Their exchange was first reported by tech news outlet Protocol earlier this year.
But after buying Twitter for $44 billion in late October, Musk said he would let it stay.
“My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk,” Musk tweeted on Nov. 6.
Sweeney runs similar “bot” accounts tracking other celebrities’ airplanes. His accounts tracking private jets used by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and various Russian oligarchs were still on Twitter on Wednesday, as were his accounts tracking Musk’s jet on rival social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Sweeney had days earlier accused Musk’s Twitter of using a filtering technique to hide his tweets, and revealed what he said were leaked internal communications showing a Twitter content-moderation executive in charge of the Trust and Safety division ordering her team to suppress the account’s reach. The Associated Press has not been able to independently verify those documents.
Sweeney said that he suspects that he was banned because of anger over those leaks.
Musk has previously criticized that filtering technique — nicknamed “shadowbanning” — and alleged that it was unfairly used by Twitter’s past leadership to suppress right-wing accounts. He has said the new Twitter will continue to downgrade the reach of negative or hateful messages but will be more transparent about it.
In his push to loosen Twitter’s content restrictions, he’s reinstated other high-profile accounts that were permanently banned for breaking Twitter’s rules against hateful conduct, harmful misinformation or incitements of violence.
Sweeney said he originally started the Musk jet tracker because “I was interested in him as a fan of Tesla and SpaceX.”
In the weeks since the Tesla CEO took over Twitter, the @elonjet account has chronicled Musk’s many cross-country journeys from his home base near Tesla’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, to various California airports for his work at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters and his rocket company SpaceX.
It showed Musk flying to East Coast cities ahead of major events, and to New Orleans shortly before a Dec. 3 meeting there with French President Emmanuel Macron.
In a January post pinned to the top of the jet-tracking account’s feed before it was suspended, Sweeney wrote that it “has every right to post jet whereabouts” because the data is public and “every aircraft in the world is required to have a transponder,” including Air Force One that transports the U.S. president.