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Musk, a self-described "free speech absolutist," did not respond to requests for comment. Image Credit: Bloomberg

The company formerly known as Twitter has been slowing the speed with which users could access links to the New York Times, Facebook and other news organizations and online competitors, a move that appeared targeted at companies that have drawn the ire of owner Elon Musk.

Users who clicked a link on Musk's website, now called X, for one of the targeted websites were made to wait about five seconds before seeing the page, according to tests conducted Tuesday by The Washington Post.

The delayed websites included X's online rivals Facebook, Instagram, Bluesky and Substack, as well as the Reuters wire service and the Times. All of them have previously been singled out by Musk for ridicule or attack.

On Tuesday afternoon, hours after this story was first published, X began reversing the throttling on some of the sites, dropping the delay times back to zero. It was unknown if all the throttled websites had normal service restored.

The delay affected the t.co domain, a link-shortening service that X uses to process every link posted to the website. Traffic is routed through the domain, allowing X to track - and, in this case, throttle - activity to the target website, potentially taking away traffic and ad revenue from businesses Musk personally dislikes.

The Post's analysis found that links to most other sites were unaffected - including those to The Washington Post, Fox News and social media services such as Mastodon and YouTube - with the shortened links being routed to their final destination in a second or less. A user first flagged the delays early Tuesday on the technology discussion forum Hacker News.

Musk, a self-described "free speech absolutist," did not respond to requests for comment. X also did not respond. Some of the targeted businesses said they were reviewing the matter when contacted Tuesday by The Post.

Charlie Stadtlander, a spokesman for the Times, said in a statement that the news outlet has "made similar observations of our own" about the systemic delays and "not received any explanation from the platform about this move."

"While we don't know the rationale behind the application of this time delay, we would be concerned by targeted pressure applied to any news organization for unclear reasons," he said.

Substack's co-founders Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi said in a statement to The Post that they urged X to reverse the decision instituting a delay on Substack links.

"Substack was created in direct response to this kind of behavior by social media companies," they said. "Writers cannot build sustainable businesses if their connection to their audience depends on unreliable platforms that have proven they are willing to make changes that are hostile to the people who use them."

Online companies pour millions of dollars into ensuring their websites open as quickly as possible, knowing that even tiny delays can lead their traffic to plunge as users grow impatient with the delay and go elsewhere. A Google study of mobile traffic in 2016 found that 53 percent of users abandoned a website if it took longer than three seconds to load. A person familiar with the Times's operations said the news organization had seen a drop in traffic from X since the delays began.

Yoel Roth, Twitter's former head of trust and safety, posted on Bluesky on Tuesday that the delays seemed like "one of those things that seems too crazy to be true, even for Twitter," but that he was able to replicate the issue through his own test. "Delays are annoying enough, even subconsciously, to drive people away," he said.

The Post's tests could not show when the delays began, but the user on Hacker News, who spoke with The Post on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said he first saw links to Times stories get delayed on Aug. 4. On that day, Musk went on a tirade against the news organization, calling it a "racial genocide apologist" and telling people to cancel their subscriptions after the Times reported on a political controversy in South Africa, where Musk was born.

Musk had previously berated the Times as "propaganda" and the "Twitter equivalent of diarrhea." In April, he removed the "verified" badge from the news outlet's now 55-million-follower account, making it harder for viewers to distinguish it from fake accounts.

The delays also affected X's biggest rivals in social media. Links to Facebook, Instagram and the new microblogging service Threads were all throttled; all three are owned by Meta, whose founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg has been locked in an ongoing online feud with Musk over not-yet-existent plans for a mixed-martial-arts fight.

X also throttled traffic to Bluesky, the platform started with help from former Twitter chief Jack Dorsey, who has used it to criticize Musk's leadership. The same throttling also applied to Substack, the email newsletter platform that runs its own short-text service, Substack Notes.

Musk has shown little reluctance to use X's technical tools to pursue personal grudges. In December, after Musk's takeover, Twitter banned an account known as ElonJet that tracked the flights of Musk's private jet, banned journalists who reported on the episode and suspended the official account of Mastodon for referring to the account in a tweet.

The site also began using technical hurdles to make it more difficult for Twitter users to access Mastodon, including marking the website as "unsafe" and blocking users from adding Mastodon links to their profiles. ElonJet now posts on Threads, Mastodon and Bluesky.