Tensions between Elon Musk and Senate Democrats are heating up ahead of former President Trump’s expected return to Twitter, which comes amid reports that the popular social media platform has seen a rise in hate speech since Musk’s takeover last year.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is raising concerns about Twitter’s opaque financing and whether foreign interests could gain enough influence over the “digital town square” ahead of the 2024 election to pose a national security threat.
Musk, anticipating more criticism from Democratic lawmakers, on Wednesday predicted the Biden administration “may try to weaponize federal agencies against Twitter.”
He made the comment after NBC News reported that Trump is preparing to return to Facebook and Twitter.
Musk lifted Trump’s ban from Twitter in November, drawing criticism from civil rights leaders such as NAACP President Derrick Johnson. Trump was banned from the platform after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and has said he will remain on his own social media platform, Truth Social.
Twitter was Trump’s favorite social media platform before his ban, and he used it to communicate directly with more than 80 million followers.
His use of Twitter changed news cycles and shaped political debates and policy while he was in office in ways that raised questions for government and the media.
Democrats fear that Trump’s return to Twitter will increase the amount of disinformation and hate speech online.
Musk and Democratic lawmakers are clashing over claims that there is now significantly more hate speech on Twitter after Musk slashed the company’s content moderation staff. The billionaire entrepreneur insists that hate speech has actually fallen since he acquired the platform.
Warren says Musk’s purchase of Twitter for $44 billion, which has saddled the business mogul with billions of dollars in debt and high interest payments, is serious cause for concern because of the murkiness surrounding how Musk will raise revenue to pay off his financial obligations.
As a private company, Twitter will no longer be required to file periodic reports, current reports and information statements with the Securities and Exchange Commission. It had to allow much more financial transparency as a publicly traded company.
Warren told The Hill that the lack of transparency into Twitter’s financing is a “problem.”
“This is about concentration of power and lack of transparency. Somebody is going to make all the rules about who has access to the marketplace of ideas. It could be a group of people that make very transparent rules or it could be one billionaire off in a dark room by himself,” she said.
“I prefer to have the rulemaking out in the open where we can see it and where lots of different voices are represented rather than one guy who wants to make the whole marketplace run to suit himself and his own ego,” Warren added.
Warren said Musk’s ownership of Twitter and his need to come up with $1.5 billion in interest payments raises concerns about the prospect that he may raise capital from foreign interests who want to influence political discussion in the United States.
“There are national security implications, there are democracy implications, there are commercial implications and there are plain old how-we-talk-to-each other implications,” she said.
Warren thinks a review of Twitter’s business revenue from foreign sources, such as the Chinese government, would be appropriate.
“A CFIUS review of any company that has so much reach across our nation and that has had reported ties to China for a long time is critical,” she said, referring to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a federal interagency committee that determines the potential impact of foreign investment on U.S. national security.
Musk took a personal shot at Warren last month after she asked the chairman of Tesla’s board of directors about potential conflicts of interests posed by Musk’s control of Tesla and Twitter.
He tweeted that the “United States has definitely been harmed by having her as a senator.”
But other Democratic lawmakers are raising alarms over Musk’s management of Twitter, which has resulted in the layoffs of thousands of workers, including content moderators who policed hate speech and misinformation.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called on CFIUS to review Twitter’s ownership and governance in a letter sent to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen last year, noting that Musk collected at least $1.89 billion from members of the Saudi royal family to finance his purchase of the company.
He noted that another $375 million in financing came from Qatar and reminded Yellen that the CFIUS must review noncontrolling investments in “sensitive U.S. businesses” that develop critical technologies and possess the personal data of U.S. citizens.
“Any potential that Twitter’s foreign ownership will result in increased censorship, misinformation, or political violence is a grave national security concern,” he warned.
A former Twitter employee, Ahmad Abouammo, was sentenced last month to 42 months in federal prison for accessing, monitoring and conveying confidential and sensitive information to identify and locate Twitter users of interest to the Saudi Royal family.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he’d be open to a CFIUS review of Twitter’s financing.
“I’d look at it, sure,” he said. “I haven’t thought about it but perhaps.”
Musk’s relationship with Democrats has become increasingly acrimonious since he initiated his acquisition of Twitter in April and said he would loosen content controls, opening the door to Trump rejoining the social media platform.
The billionaire businessman said in May that he voted for Democrats in the past because they were “(mostly) the kindness party” but then declared “they have become the party of division [and] hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican.”
He encouraged “independent-minded” people to vote for Republicans in the midterm election, tweeting “shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties.”
Musk has also tangled with House Democrats in recent months.
Three Democratic House members sent a letter to Musk last month to express “deep concern about the platform manipulation campaign on Twitter that restricted access to news about the protests in the People’s Republic of China” and about the “potential impacts” of the Chinese government’s “growing cyber enabled capabilities.”
The lawmakers — Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) and former Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) — asked whether Twitter had evidence of the Chinese government or other state actors trying to suppress access of information through bots or whether Twitter had the capacity to identify large-scale misinformation, disinformation and information suppression.
Musk clashed with Schiff last month when the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee highlighted reports that incidents of hate speech against Black people, women, Jewish people and gay men have risen dramatically over the past year.
Musk tweeted that Schiff’s assertion that slurs against minorities and women have shot up was “false.”
“Hate speech impressions are actually down by 1/3 for Twitter now vs. prior acquisition,” he claimed.
Two watchdog groups, the Center for Countering Digital Hate and the Anti-Defamation League, published separate reports last month that found hate speech on Twitter has increased significantly on Twitter under Musk’s control.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate found that racist slurs aimed at Black people tripled and slurs against gay men increased 58 percent. The Anti-Defamation League found an increase in antisemitic content.
When asked about those reports, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would be open to reviewing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social media companies from legal liability for content posted on their platforms.
“I’ve always said that Section 230 is something that we should look at. The difficulty there is coming up with the right solution but it’s something I’d be open to looking at,” he told reporters last month.