Elon Musk’s ever-changing Twitter Inc. content policies, applied haphazardly to justify banning the accounts of a number of prominent journalists who cover him, have attracted the ire of regulators and free-speech advocates.

The moves have given the people who make the most content for the social network a reason to flee, which could be bad for business.

On Twitter, a small minority of users produce the vast majority of the tweets. According to Pew Research, 97 per cent of the posts on the service come from 25 per cent of the users. Those in the media, who rely on Twitter’s fast-flowing feed to inform their jobs, are among the top power users. They’re such a crucial constituency that for years pre-Musk, Twitter directly recruited and worked with media companies to sign up their journalists for the site and get their accounts verified.

Reporters are the “heartbeat” of the user base, according to Lara Cohen, former vice president of partners and marketing — a team that was culled in Musk’s recent layoffs.

Twitter needs its power users because more interesting content that appears on its site first leads to more reason for other people to join in order to share and comment on those posts. That generates more tweets, which in turn creates more opportunity for advertising revenue.

Musk is also launching a subscription service that will cost $8 a month, the success of which will depend on Twitter serving up regular valuable information and entertainment to subscribers. And he needs Twitter to grow and succeed financially, in order to repay the banks that lent him billions to purchase the network.

Musk seems to understand this in principle. In his first question-and-answer session with employees as their new owner in November, he noted that Twitter needed to recruit the top talent from YouTube and TikTok and find a way for them to be compensated for their work. 

When he released internal documents chronicling decisions by Twitter’s prior management, he made the reporters with access to the so-called #TwitterFiles agree to release their findings on the social network first. 

And yet, in practice, Musk is making life harder for his top creators. On Thursday, a half-dozen journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere found their accounts suspended as they chronicled the ban of an account that was tracking his private jet. Some had followings in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Over the weekend, after restoring some of those users, he went on to ban more highly followed reporters – all of whom were working on stories about Musk. Out of fear that anyone might be banned at any time, top users started sharing links to their alternative accounts. 

That, too, irked Musk. So Twitter introduced a new policy against directing followers to Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon and other competing sites.

“This is the last straw,” tweeted Paul Graham, a prominent venture capitalist with 1.5 million followers. “I give up. You can find a link to my new Mastodon profile on my site.” Soon, his account also became temporarily unavailable.

It’s not unusual for social media sites to discourage linking to competitors. Facebook has, at times, done so algorithmically or automatically – a practice that was criticized in a federal antitrust case. On Instagram, another Meta Platforms Inc. property, it’s been difficult for big accounts to earn verified check marks if they link to a competitive account in their profile. On TikTok, most accounts can’t link anything in their profiles. 

But on Twitter, which is mostly text-based, creators who may have had bigger followings on other sites have historically come to market their work, wherever it lives. Such a broad policy against it is “unprecedented,” said Jason Goldman, an early Twitter executive. “What matters more is that they are terrified of the exodus.”

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With the backlash from Twitter’s top users showing no signs of abating, Musk has seemingly made some concessions. On Sunday, he apologised and said that going forward he’ll conduct votes on major policy changes, while also tweeting out a poll asking users to decide whether he should step down as head of Twitter.   

“Any platform that doesn’t recognise or respect its most influential creators generally does not last for long,” said Taylor Lorenz, a Washington Post journalist who covers the creator economy. She found herself banned temporarily over the weekend, after asking Musk to comment on a story.