Journalist banned from Twitter says it’s important that users not self-censor News
Journalist banned from Twitter says it’s important that users not self-censor

In an exclusive interview with JURIST Friday, VOA Chief National Correspondent and JURIST Journalist in Residence Steve Herman, banned from Twitter in mid-December, said it is important that people not self-censor amid the turmoil surrounding Elon Musk’s newly-acquired social media platform. Herman remains suspended from Twitter for posts pertaining to Musk, but recognized that Twitter is among the most influential social media platforms available.

Prior to his December 15, 2022 suspension, Herman said he used the platform every day. “I spent the better part of 15 years on Twitter. I mean literally from first thing in the morning to last thing at night,” he said. Herman, like many other journalists in the field, relied upon Twitter’s vast userbase for sources and quotes. Over his 15 years on Twitter, he accumulated a smattering of high profile followers, including diplomats, prominent journalists, politicians, business executives and royalty. Herman said, “I didn’t have their email addresses or their phone numbers, but they followed me. So I could direct message them or hit them up for quotes as sources.”

This demonstrates just how crucial of a role Twitter plays in the societal exchange of information. As Herman described it, Twitter has become everyone’s “customized news service.” Prior to Musk’s takeover of Twitter, Herman–like many others–assumed that the social media platforms would always be level and fair. “What we’ve learned from this,” Herman pointed out, “is that there is now an activist owner of Twitter who may micromanage the platform, remove people from the platform, and sway the conversation in a certain way.”

Since Musk’s takeover, Twitter has been marred in controversies. Among them are the December 15, 2022 wave of suspensions of prominent journalists, a class action lawsuit following thousands of layoffs at Twitter, and more recently whistleblower reports about undisclosed security flaws. The controversies have drawn the attention of government regulators and sparked a policy debate which begs the question–what is Twitter? As Herman sees it, “Researchers and policymakers are going to help us figure this out and navigate through this and help us make the ethical decisions and set the legal frameworks for all of this.”

Herman, himself, has chosen to stay out of the conflict. He reflected on situation, stating: “This is similar to what happened to me when I was White House correspondent and actions were taken against me by top officials in the administration I was covering. It became a public story and got kind of messy.” Herman called the situation “regrettable,” but has chosen to allow other “people to do the talking in responding to the situation because” he wants to maintain his neutrality as a journalist as much as possible. “I’ve never seen myself as an activist,” he said. “But the problem is…[when] you have a large enough of a megaphone–through broadcast or social media–eventually somebody powerful is going to react and not like what you’re reporting.”

When it came to the Twitter suspensions, for example, Musk cited his newly-released Twitter policy which prohibited the sharing of real-time location information. Though Twitter claimed the policy applies evenly across the platform, a very specific group of journalists were targeted in a wave of Twitter suspensions–including one who requested a comment from Musk regarding a story on the wave of suspensions. Herman said, “It’s a dilemma and it puts journalists in a very uncomfortable position.”

Despite Twitter’s expanding list of controversies, many users have chosen to remain on the platform. Even Herman admitted, “If Twitter tomorrow said, ‘You’re no longer permanently suspended,’ I would happily go back and use my account again.” But, he noted, “That doesn’t mean that I will leave the other platforms I have gotten on.”

Since Musk’s takeover, other social media platforms, such as Mastodon, have seen an influx of users. Some say the appeal of these other platforms is their open-source nature, which harkens back to the early days of the internet. Asked whether Herman believed any of these platforms would replace Twitter, he said, “Eventually…something will come along. But will it have the influence that Twitter has had? Who knows. We could be talking about something that doesn’t occur for years.”

Until then, “despite all of the dents and bruises and controversies” Twitter remains among the most influential social media platform in our society. As investigations into several controversies pan out, journalists and everyday users will continue to rely upon Twitter to exchange information. Herman stressed for users who remain on Twitter to not self-censor over fear of being suspended or banned. If nothing else, the situation has brought increased awareness to the role that social media platforms play in how we receive and consume information. Herman admitted that the situation forced him to “step back, raise [his] hand and say ‘I was a Twitter addict.'”