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Twitter Locks Out Watchdog Placard Abuse Account

Twitter locked the @placardabuse account over allegedly violating its privacy rules. Tweet courtesy of @placard abuse; montage: Streetsblog

Does Elon Musk have a problem with public officials being called out for corruption?

Twitter not once but twice locked the @placardabuse account due to a pair of 2019 tweets showing a driver using an unofficial placard and fake badge to park illegally.

Twitter claimed the post with photos showing placards and other documents displayed in a car’s dashboard violated the media giant’s rules against publishing people’s private information without their consent, but the people behind @placardabuse countered that they shared only what was already on public view — on the dashboard of the car in question.

The prolific anonymous social media watchdog has been documenting New York City’s rampant parking corruption for years, but for an unknown reason, Twitter suddenly barred the account from tweeting this week until the account holders agreed to delete the three-year-old posts, they told Streetsblog.

It is unclear if the censorship is due to any change in the social media company’s content moderation since Musk — who has claimed to be a “free speech absolutist”  — took over the helm of Twitter less than two weeks ago, or if someone recently flagged the three-year-old posts.

But it’s a saga three years in the making:

In April 2019, the @placardabuse account began a thread of posts showing what it said was illegal parking by the driver of a black BMW with Batman decals and only a rear New Jersey plate labelled “ESQR.”

On the car’s front dashboard, the driver had displayed an unofficial badge and placard by the National Police Defense Foundation, an organization based in the Garden State that offers free medical and legal support to the “law enforcement community,” according to its website.

The placard bore the name of lawyer Mikhail Lezhnev, and there was also a handwritten note with a number to call “if car is in the way.”

Photos in the thread show the vehicle at times in a No Parking zone in Lower Manhattan and in an area only for vehicles authorized by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission.

The @placardabuse account accused the attorney in a tweet on May 7, 2019 of abusing the police-like paraphernalia to park illegally.

“Hey look — Mikhail Lezhnev, Esq. parked his #perpmobile with a missing NJ plate illegally again in the same spot using his #toybadge & National Police Defense Foundation card on the dashboard,” reads the now-deleted tweet.

A screenshot of the tweet that Twitter says violated its privacy rules. Screenshot: @placardabuse
A screenshot of the tweet that Twitter says violated its privacy rules. Screenshot: @placardabuse

The offending message and photo were still retrievable via an online keyword search, and they were also just one in a thread of five posts that the account shared about the driver over the course of several months that year.

The account’s operators told Streetsblog they decided to delete the tweet rather than wait for Twitter to respond to an appeal, but they were still restricted from posting for 12 hours afterward.

Their access was restored Wednesday night, but Twitter again blocked them Thursday morning for another tweet about the same car, they said.

But the keepers of the Placard Abuse account — who demand anonymity because they have been harassed by cops — said they will fight on.

“Misconduct by officers of the court is a matter of public interest, and any complaint by this lawyer alleging that we somehow violated his privacy, when he chose to put this info on display where he knows there is no expectation of privacy, is 100 percent bad faith,” one of the account holders told Streetsblog in an email.

“We will be back to continue our anti-corruption work as soon as Twitter restores our ability to post more placard corruption examples.”

Lezhnev, the lawyer, declined to comment over the phone and did not respond to an email follow-up. Twitter did not respond either, but the company reportedly no longer has a communications department.

The social media company in 2020 restricted the bot that looks up state driving records by license plate, @HowsMyDrivingNY, because it was programmed to automatically respond to everyone tagged in someone’s tweet.

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