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Elon Musk threatens to reassign @NPR on Twitter to 'another company'

Twitter CEO Elon Musk speaks at the "Twitter 2.0: From Conversations to Partnerships," marketing conference in Miami Beach, Florida, in April.
CHANDAN KHANNA
/
AFP via Getty Images
Twitter CEO Elon Musk speaks at the "Twitter 2.0: From Conversations to Partnerships," marketing conference in Miami Beach, Florida, in April.

Updated May 3, 2023 at 1:41 PM ET

Elon Musk has threatened to reassign NPR's Twitter account to "another company."

In a series of emails sent to this reporter, Musk said he would transfer the network's main account on Twitter, under the @NPR handle, to another organization or person. The idea shocked even longtime observers of Musk's spur-of-the-moment and erratic leadership style.

Handing over established accounts to third parties poses a serious risk of impersonation and could imperil a company's reputation, said social media experts.

"If this is a sign of things to come on Twitter, we might soon see even more of a rapid retreat by media organizations and other brands that don't think it's worth the risk," said Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia Journalism School who studies social media. "It's really an extraordinary threat to make."

Last month, NPR effectively quit Twitter after Musk applied a label to the news organization's account that falsely suggested it was state-controlled. Other public media organizations, including PBS and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., followed suit and stopped tweeting following similar labeling.

Musk has since removed the labels, but the outlets originally targeted have not resumed public activity on Twitter.

Musk: "should we reassign @NPR to another company?"

In an unprompted Tuesday email, Musk wrote: "So is NPR going to start posting on Twitter again, or should we reassign @NPR to another company?"

Under Twitter's terms of service, an account's inactivity is based on logging in, not tweeting. Those rules state that an account must be logged into at least every 30 days, and that "prolonged inactivity" can result in it being permanently removed.

Musk did not answer when asked whether he planned to change the platform's definition of inactivity and he declined to say what prompted his new questions about NPR's lack of participation on Twitter.

"Our policy is to recycle handles that are definitively dormant," Musk wrote in another email. "Same policy applies to all accounts. No special treatment for NPR."

The threat of retaliation is the latest volley in a months-long conflict between Musk and established media organizations since the billionaire purchased Twitter in October.

Musk has long attacked the media and attempted to undercut the credibility of journalists. The Twitter CEO has suspended reporters who have published or promoted stories critical of him. Musk has stripped away, and at times reissued, "verified" blue check marks to news organizations and individual journalists.

By recently making "verified" blue checks available for purchase, Musk has created a turbulent social media landscape, blurring the lines for users between what is real and what is fake on one of the most influential social networks.

Musk to NPR: "So what's the beef?"

His remark on Tuesday that he may transfer NPR's primary Twitter account with nearly 9 million followers to another entity is typical of how Musk has run the social media site.

As is often the case with Musk, it is not clear whether he will follow through on the threat.

One former Twitter executive was taken aback by the remark, telling NPR that such a threat should be alarming to any business operating on the site, since it indicates that acquiescing to Musk's every whim may be necessary in order to avoid being impersonated.

For most of its 17-year history, Twitter has had rules that maintained a certain level of order and offered both individuals and organization some control over their presence on the platform.

NPR CEO John Lansing has previously said he lost faith with "decision-making at Twitter," and that more time is needed in order to determine if Twitter can be trusted again.

A spokeswoman for NPR declined to comment further.

Musk, whose statements to reporters are regularly laced with jokes, insults or attempts at trolling, responded sarcastically when asked who would potentially take over NPR's Twitter account.

"National Pumpkin Radio," Musk wrote, adding a fire emoji and a laughing emoji to describe the content of the fictional gourd-themed broadcaster. "NPR isn't tagged as government-funded anymore, so what's the beef?"

In an email sent at 2:19 a.m. EDT after the story was originally published, Musk wrote a message without any text in the body but with this subject line: "You suck."

Disclosure: This story was reported and written by NPR Tech Reporter Bobby Allyn and edited by Business Editor Lisa Lambert. Under NPR's protocol for reporting on itself, no corporate official or news executive reviewed this story before it was posted publicly.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 4, 2023 at 10:00 PM MDT
The time in the final paragraph has been corrected to "EDT" from "EST" to reflect the U.S. is currently in Daylight Time.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.