UPDATED (9:30 a.m., Dec. 17, 2022) – @TerryCowgill, a columnist for CTNewsJunkie and the former editor of the Berkshire Edge, had his Twitter account suspended Friday. Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, also suspended the accounts of several prominent journalists.
But Cowgill is a columnist who writes about Connecticut politics and policy. He was trying to explain how flight plans are public information to someone who tweeted at him, but he can’t figure out how that violated any of Twitter’s rules.
“Criticizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not,” Musk tweeted Thursday. He was referring to the Wednesday suspension of @elonjet, an account tracking his private jet in real time using data available in the public domain.
In a phone interview Friday, Cowgill said he was approached by someone on Twitter who criticized people for doxing Musk.
Cowgill said he tried to explain that doxing is disclosing private information publicly, but where a jet is located at any given moment is public information. And he put a link to a flight tracking website in the tweet.
It was his last. He said he did not tweet about the location of any specific jet, Cowgill said he just put a link into one of many flight tracking websites in his Twitter feed.
He said an hour later he tried to check his feed and the message about his suspension appeared.
He said in the suspension there is a link to appeal the suspension, which he clicked and filed his complaint because he doesn’t believe he violated any of Twitter’s terms of service.
“I just linked to the site generally,” Cowgill explained. “I try to be a voice of reason and a voice of calm.”
He wondered whether there was some algorithm simply looking for flight-tracking urls and automatically banning any account that links to them.
Lon Seidman, a technology expert, said the flight-tracking site that Cowgill linked to receives data from radio hobbyists throughout the world who pick up the ADS-B data transmissions from passing aircraft.
“Anybody can do it and the data is broadcast without encryption. Unlike similar commercial services, ADS-B Exchange says they do not filter out planes that request this data be made private. Musk’s aircraft and its flight history are on the site so that is likely why Twitter is aggressively preventing people from linking to it,” Seidman said.
Cowgill said he didn’t really know the difference between flight tracking websites. He was just trying to help someone understand that the information is public.
“I assume I’m not alone,” Cowgill said. “I’ve read about five journalists who were de-platformed.”
Doug Hardy, co-owner/co-publisher of CTNewsJunkie, said that banning Cowgill over an arbitrary, unrelated tweet, as well as other journalists doing their jobs, appears to have been a mistake or an overreaction by new management at the social network.
“Twitter has been a useful platform for journalists for a long time, but over the last several weeks it has been inconsistent,” Hardy said. “Terry Cowgill did nothing wrong in sharing the link to a public website that monitors air traffic. Moderating user comment on any platform is really difficult – far more so than anyone ever expects when they first become a publisher. And when it is perceived as personal, it gets even harder. Safety is always paramount, but I’m hoping Twitter can bring in some people to help manage that process in a positive way that avoids moving the goalposts repeatedly and restores access for our writer and others.”
Aside from Cowgill, it’s unclear how many other journalists or others may have also had their accounts suspended.
Like many others concerned about the lack of free speech, Cowgill has joined Mastodon, a new social media platform.
Cowgill said he only had about 1,000 followers on Twitter, but will be hard-pressed to get back up to that number on a new platform when he can’t migrate the followers he has on Twitter because he can’t see them with a suspended account.
Twitter and Musk did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Saturday, Cowgill received confirmation that the link to the flight-tracking website in his tweet was the offending information that got him suspended by Twitter and he was given an opportunity to remove it if he wanted his account to be restored.
“I am still weighing, whether or not to accept Twitter’s offer. It would be like pleading, guilty in order to obtain my freedom,” Cowgill said.