Journalist Aaron Rupar on the ‘chilling effect’ of being suspended by Twitter

Aaron Rupar, a former Vox journalist who now works independently, was one of the journalists who had their Twitter accounts suspended last evening.

While it’s still unclear what exactly these journalists did to get locked out of their accounts, new Twitter owner Elon Musk in a series of tweets claimed the journalists had violated his “doxxing” policy by sharing his “exact real-time” location. However, none of the banned journalists shared Musk’s real-time location and instead linked to or had recently reported on social platform Mastodon and the @ElonJet account that shares the location of Musk’s private jet using publicly available information.

Digiday spoke with Rupar to hear his thoughts on his Twitter suspension and what it means for his work and business.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

How did you find out your Twitter account got suspended?

I was actually playing on the floor with my seven-month-old in the evening. My phone started blowing up. And it was people either emailing me or on Instagram saying, “Oh, my goodness, your Twitter account is suspended.” … So I pulled up Twitter and sure enough, at the top of my page there was a notice that my account had been permanently suspended. I hadn’t heard anything at that time at all from Twitter.

I was left to basically do some reporting, contacting other reporters and people who had also been banned as part of this wave of banishment to try and figure out what was going on. We figured out over time that it seemed to have to do with a tweet I posted — and other people posted similar tweets — linking to the Facebook page for the Elon Jet account, which had been banned from Twitter. I had posted a link to that account early Wednesday morning, right when the Twitter page for that account had been banned. And then hours later, Elon announced on Twitter that the new terms of service made it a violation even to link to pages like that. And so essentially I ended up being banned for something that wasn’t a terms of service violation when I posted it, but retroactively ended up being one. It was kind of a throwaway tweet. Had I known I certainly would not have chanced getting banned, but it just never occurred to me that simply linking to a public Facebook page could constitute a violation of this sort.

What did you do after you found out?

[I reached out] to someone from Twitter’s trust and safety team. Many hours later, deep into the evening, I heard [from them] confirming that [was why I got banned]. It does sound like our accounts eventually will be reinstated. The person who I was in touch with couldn’t clarify when that might be. I saw that Elon has a poll on his page asking if it should be immediate or in a week. There’s no option for permanent. But it still does say on my account that I am permanently suspended. So there’s a little bit of a contradiction there.

With this new era of Twitter it seems like it’s people kind of flying by the seat of their pants and making it up as they go. So that’s not necessarily surprising to me… [There’s] a link in the notice that you have been permanently suspended that links to an appeal you can fill out. But the link is actually broken. I thought that was kind of on brand.

How does your Twitter suspension impact your work?

For me as an independent journalist who does a newsletter business that basically operates on Twitter, it’s disconcerting. Last night [I was] pretty dismayed at first, like, wow, I’m really going to have to reassess how I make a living. It’s taken me a decade to build 800,000 followers on Twitter. Not only that but I’ve been doing video work, painstakingly doing video threads of hearings, debates, speeches, Trump rallies, all sorts of different events. To lose that, it’s like, there goes my work for years and years. It just disappeared suddenly. 

It sounds like Twitter was a vehicle for you to gain subscribers to your Substack, right? Do you have a game plan for what to do now?

Just before we got on the phone and in between media hits, I created an account on Post News. From what I’ve kind of gathered, it seems like that’s sort of the consensus as the most promising alternative on offer. I also plan to get more active on Mastodon. But for me, the scale of Twitter is the big draw for me.

When you’re running a newsletter business, you do the math on if you have 800,000 followers and you can convert even 1-2% of those into newsletter subscribers, then you’re off to a pretty good start, right? When I left Vox over a year ago now, that was the math I was doing in my head. But when you lose [those followers], you’re starting from scratch on all these different platforms.

It seems like we will be reinstated, so I’m not sweating it too much. Even if it ends up being a week, great, I can take a week and kind of chill. It’s the holidays. But if it ended up being like a year or something permanent, you just have to roll with the punches. Given the video work that I do, I think I am in a better position than most to kind of grow a following relatively quickly. But it’s still daunting. You spend a lot of sweat equity building something over many, many years and you see that vanish instantaneously for pretty spurious reasons. It’s kind of a reality check. I think it’s a cautionary tale, for outlets and journalists more broadly, that we’ve sort of relied on Twitter to be this platform [where] we can interact with readers and grow an audience. But it’s turning into this situation where the rules are really unpredictable and can change. If you do something to offend Elon, you can be iced out really, really quickly. I want to try to be careful about antagonizing. I don’t want to run afoul and end up being permanently banned if I can avoid it.

If you were to get reinstated, would you behave any differently on Twitter?

That’s an interesting topic because I do think that this will have a chilling effect on journalists who are trying to cover Elon. The one common thing beyond linking to the Facebook page that all of us who were banned yesterday had in common is that we’ve been critical of him. I think that does set up a chilling precedent, where if you’re doing critical reporting on Twitter or on Elon, you’re going to have to think twice: If I published a story, if I posted a tweet, could I be banned for it? And maybe that’s part of the idea, to plant that seed that there’s going to be consequences if you’re critical of this guy. That’ll be something I’ll grapple with. If and when I’m back on there, I probably will try to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.

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