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Elon Musk's Private Jet Tail Number is N628TS
The most fragile billionaire, like all billionaires, can't help but make everything about him. The real loser: Democracies.
On On February 9, 1978, a 14-year-old walked into a school in St. Albans, West Virginia, and shot one of his classmates to death.
News went out over police scanners. Journalists rushed to the school.
Students, shellshocked, quickly identified the shooter. A reporter for the Charleston Gazette jotted down the name, filed their story, and published the full account in the morning edition.
Less a month later, the paper — along with a competitor, who published the assailant’s name later that day in their afternoon edition — was indicted. West Virginia law forbade the publication of juvenile offenders’ name, and the state wasn’t going to let this slide.
The case would be fought all the way to the Supreme Court, where a majority court struck down the statute as unconstitutional.
“So valued is the liberty of speech and of the press,” Justice William Rehnquist wrote. “That there is a tendency in cases such as this to accept virtually any contention supported by a claim of interference with speech or the press.”
Rehnquist actually supported such a ban (although he found the law arbitrarily singled out newspapers) so you need to read a bit of sarcasm into the above quote. But his bit of hand-waving nevertheless proved rather prescient. Western democracies have, over the past century at least, developed a set of standards ensuring that journalists’ ability to report the news ought to only be curtailed in the most limited of circumstances. (Although many countries do draw the line at publishing a young offender’s name.)
Anti-SLAPP legislation has put walls around how the rich and powerful can use the legal system to silence the press — with courts across North America growing increasingly bullish on the idea that defamation can be in the public interest, particularly if it’s true. Despite police departments everywhere trying their damnedest to intimidate those who film arrests, that act of citizen journalism is generally protected as well. Whistleblower protection laws ensure that corporations can’t force a reporter to disclose their source, no matter how mad the embarrassed executives may be.
Journalists are at their most effective when they are unencumbered by overzealous regulators and fragile egos with lawyers on retainer. That reporting can be inaccurate, sleazy, unethical, inane, and creepy, but it is protected. The more you open up the profession of journalism to legal and criminal liability, the less good journalism you get.
Which brings me, unfortunately, to Elon Musk.
I was not a Musk alarmist. I generally thought Twitter going private was a good thing. The website is a useful tool for journalists in the West, a critical way for freedom movements around the world to stay connected and publicize their struggle, and it’s occasionally quite funny. A billionaire with cash to burn and an incessant desire to be liked struck me as a reasonably good candidate to run the place.
Boy was I wrong.
For weeks, Musk’s fuckups have piled.
The website has had random outages. Waves of resignations, most recently from the team that tackled child sexual exploitation on the platform, have left the platform critically understaffed and unsupervised. The whole Twitter Blue fiasco. Amnesty for far-right agitators. Disconnecting a number of countries altogether, including Ukraine.
Every single one of these was an own goal. Musk could have succeeded by reducing overhead, tinkering with the platform’s moderation policies, and juicing up paid subscriptions. But, instead, he rose to the level of his incompetence and everything he touched turned to shit.
But Musk, like most men addicted to the thought of their own genius, has graded himself on a different metric: Traffic. As advertisers flee and the website starts breaking down, and people flock to the website to get updates on the slow-motion implosion, active users have gone up. Musk has pointed to that data as evidence that his approach is working. (In fact, the increased volume is probably costing Musk money, given how few quality advertisers are left.)
When he leaked THE TWITTER FILES, it generated excitement on right-wing conspiracy portals everywhere. Even QAnon influencers, still banned from Twitter, gleefully shared links to the tick-tock updates, even though they were a complete snooze. (I wrote about that for WIRED.)
Those files showed erstwhile Twitter staff wrestling with difficult questions around what content to allow on the platform — and, often, getting it wrong, particularly when it came to the decision to nix all sharing of the New York Post’s questionable reporting on Hunter Biden. The staff, then, would have been wise to go back and read the Supreme Court’s careful balancing act in the Charleston Gazette case. But their effort to try and follow and apply the rules evenly, whether it was a report filed by the GOP or Democrats, was at least an admirable thought. But Musk et al were right to point out that they didn’t live up to that aspiration.
Critics of Twitter, on both the left and right, have correctly assessed that the platform is akin to public infrastructure. Its position as a critical tool for governments, journalists, and the public to both share and receive information is a genuine public good. Its role in fomenting unrest against autocracy — and, occasionally, democracy — is powerful, terrifying, chaotic and, ultimately, good.
The right, in particular, sees Twitter as a great equalizer: A devolution of power from the elite and establishment to the people. They see journalism as a critical pillar of that establishment. That belief is what spurred excitement around Musk’s takeover.
But power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Taking the company private and defenestrating any naysayers kept the precious snowflake in his safe space, free from criticism and challenge.
So Musk, apparently, saw no hypocrisy in his decision to ban the dissemination of his private jet’s flight path — working backwards, he banned all flight tracking and, later, all real-time location updates before doubling-back and allowing information relating to a “public engagement or event.”
The Twitter team banned shared the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop out of fear it was a Russian disinformation operation, the result of a crime, and essentially revenge porn. They made the wrong call, and owned up to it later, but their concern was for the general public. Musk’s ban is entirely self-serving.
This isn’t a new fixation for Musk. Over recent years, plane enthusiasts and critics alike have logged the flight paths of various private jet — embarrassing Taylor Swift for her CO2-intensive short-haul trips and keeping tabs on Russian oligarchs as they sprint around the world to avoid the nightmare they financed.
Naturally, people fixated on Musk’s fleet of private aircraft: Two Gulfstrean G550s (tail numbers 272BG and 502SX) and a newer Gulfstream G650ER (N628TS), all registered to Falcon Landing LLC, a holding company is owned by Musk and SpaceX.
Knowing where those jets are coming from or going to is public information, in the same way you can track a commercial airliner to see if it arrived on time. Services like Flightradar24 and Flightaware have been making this data publicly available for years.
Jack Sweeney, a 20-year-old programmer, has made a particular habit of keeping tabs on those private jets, setting up a bunch of bots to spit out the information as it comes in. Not for any nefarious purpose — unless someone wants to hop in a fighter jet and intercept Drake’s plane — but simply because it’s data that could be useful, interesting, or not.
We don’t have a right to know it as much as nobody really has a right to tell us we can’t.
Of course there is zero evidence tracking a billionaire’s flight has ever led to a serious security risk, any more than Musk showing up to his office or a pre-arranged event is.
You know what is doxxing? This, which happened on the same day, and which continues to be shared on Twitter:
Nevertheless, Musk has worked hard to hide information about his big boy plane. Under legal threats, Flightradar24 and Flightaware have stopped tracking Musk’s plane. He has bullied Sweeney, reportedly offering him $5,000 to shut down the account, and then threatened him with legal action.
Trying to totally offline this information is more difficult, however. Thanks to other platforms, we know that musk flew from Austin, Texas on Thursday, to Tonopah, Nevada, then on to San Jose, California Friday.
What to do with this information? Who knows! Who cares.
Sweeney and all of his bots were banned. When journalists like Aaron Rupar (who writes the fantastic Public Notice here on Substack) and Donie O’Sullivan reported on the hypocrisy of Musk forbidding reports about his private jet while publishing the license plate of a guy who, he claims, stalked him — they got banned.
Then people who criticized the ban got banned.
When journalists assembled in a Twitter Space to discuss the Thursday night massacre, Musk joined — and was skewered by journalists who saw right through his sad excuses.
So Musk shut down that Space, then the entire Spaces function. No more Spaces for anyone. (Correction: It’s since come to my attention that Spaces was only shut down for those of us who happened to be in Katie Notopoulos’ space. Which is even wilder!)
Why he’s doing this doesn’t really matter. Clearly it’s, partly, an attempt to give himself a level of privacy not enjoyed by others who don’t have the benefit of owning a social media platform. It’s also obviously an attempt to juice up traffic — but there will be diminishing returns to this game in short order. At the end of the day, it’s the effect not the intent.
The issue is broader than a few journalists who have been kicked off the platform. The issue is that Musk is doing exactly what he perceived, incorrectly, the ancien regime had been doing: Making arbitrary decisions to silence his critics, and weakening the entire premise of free speech and the free press in the process.
When it came the Charleston Gazette, the Supreme Court held that “state action to punish the publication of truthful information seldom can satisfy constitutional standards.” Musk is not the state, true, but he himself describes the platform as a “digital town square.” If that is to be true, he needs to be held to a similar standard as the state of West Virginia. Just because he wrote it down in his notebook and called it a rule doesn’t mean it isn’t punitive.
Nothing, yet, has supplanted Twitter’s role in disseminating information. In places where the actual town square is guarded by tanks, Twitter is a critical tool. Perhaps Mastodon or Post News will fill that gap, but I remain skeptical. As I’ve written in recent weeks, it may fall to a series of platforms to pick up that slack. Necessity may be the mother of all invention, but it would be nice to have the luxury of time to build something better.
Twitter will die, whether it is destroyed by Musk today or by another owner five years from now or by the EMP that knocks out all electricity around the world, so it’s best to prepare for what that looks like.
I was never one to threaten to deactivate my Twitter, or to self-impose exile — most who pulled that move sauntered back in shortly thereafter. But a platform that silences journalists is not a platform worth using.
So I’ll keep sharing Musk’s private jet flight path.
This wasn’t the post I had planned on sending out today, but news comes at you fast. Expect a meaty Bug-eyed and Shameless next week. And don’t forget to come join me in the chat: