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.
Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” had been critical of the 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. “He’s trying to bring the company to profitability, and this is the last thing he needs.”
Sweeney’s other accounts, which tracked the air travel of college sports teams, celebrities and politicians, including Mark Zuckerberg, John F. Kerry and 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 has 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 had previously 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.
Sweeney, 20, 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 as to who Musk flew with or where he went once the plane had landed.
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 banning of the jet account 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.”