WASHINGTON — Which party controls Congress next year could have big implications for Twitter — and its new “Chief Twit,” Elon Musk.
Democrats, fighting to keep their House and Senate majorities in next week's midterm elections, are calling for investigations into Twitter and say they don't trust Musk to police offensive language and election disinformation on the social media platform.
Republicans have cheered on Musk’s $44 billion takeover as he fired Twitter’s top executives, brought in his own team and froze some employee access to internal tools used for content moderation, which the GOP has argued have been used to target and silence conservative voices.
But influential Republicans said they also want to get to the bottom of whether there was political bias and censorship at Twitter and other tech companies before Musk's takeover. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is poised to become the top Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said he’d like Musk to “institute transparency” and disclose what he unearths as he digs into how content decisions were made under the previous leadership team.
On his podcast, “Verdict with Ted Cruz,” on Friday, Cruz said he has asked Twitter, Facebook, Google and other tech companies hundreds of questions about whether they suppressed certain news stories or posts from certain politicians before recent elections.
“Elon should answer those questions. And that will have an impact not just on Twitter, but it will have an impact on Facebook, an impact on Google, an impact on YouTube,” Cruz said. “This is a big deal for the whole world of Big Tech — not just Twitter. Because the more Elon provides transparency, the more pressure there will be on the other players to do the same.”
House Republicans, who are favored to retake the majority in next week's elections, instructed Twitter executives this spring to preserve all records and communication related to the potential Musk sale, foreshadowing congressional probes into the company in 2023. The letter was led by conservative Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a Donald Trump loyalist who is set to become chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee if the GOP wins the House. A Jordan spokesman had no comment about Musk and Twitter; Republicans expect the company will be more cooperative with any future GOP investigations with Musk at the helm.
After Musk’s acquisition last week, the House Judiciary Committee’s GOP Twitter account tweeted the word “Soon ...” with a video of Trump walking out onstage to Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” It was a nod to Musk’s vow that Trump — banned from Twitter for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — would soon be reinstated on the site.
Meanwhile, critics on the left — wary of Musk from the start of his hostile takeover bid — are horrified by the changes they’ve seen so far. The Network Contagion Research Institute, which monitors online activity to predict emerging threats, said it saw a 500% spike in the use of the N-word on Twitter in the 12 hours after Musk seized control of the company.
And this week, in a response to Hillary Clinton, Musk tweeted, then deleted an unfounded anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, from a website that has a history of publishing false and misleading information. The attack took place at the Pelosis’ home in San Francisco, where Twitter is based.
“I had every reason to believe that this would be problematic: Elon taking over one of the world’s most influential global communications platforms,” said a former Clinton foreign policy aide, Jesse Lehrich, a co-founder of the left-leaning watchdog Accountable Tech. “But I didn’t expect him to be tweeting insane conspiracy theories at Hillary Clinton about Paul Pelosi as the speaker survives an assassination attempt within the first 72 hours.”
He added: “It’s exceeded the kind of threats that we were warning about.”
One week before the midterm elections, Democrats are focused on the campaign trail rather than on the corporate drama unfolding inside Twitter headquarters. But Musk’s controversial antics on the platform have caught the attention of some Senate Democrats, who will be heavily scrutinizing the company and Musk if they can keep control of the Senate in the new Congress.
“Headlines today say a lot,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a member of the Judiciary Committee and former state attorney general, tweeted on Halloween. “Pelosi, Vilified by Republicans for Years, Is a Top Target of Threats. Elon Musk, right-wing figures push misinformation about Pelosi attack.”
When Musk made his initial offer for Twitter this year, Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., contemplated holding hearings to explore his plans for the company and how he would address the spread of disinformation on the site. Democrats were particularly alarmed by Musk’s flirtation with reinstating Trump on the platform.
Weeks later, Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” confirmed he would reverse Trump’s ban. But upon taking control of Twitter, Musk said he would first form a “content moderation council,” and Yoel Roth, the head of safety and integrity at Twitter, insisted that the company’s policies on hate speech haven’t changed.
"Hateful conduct has no place here,” Roth tweeted. “This includes targeting people with dehumanizing content and slurs.”
Through a spokesperson, Cantwell declined to comment on her committee’s plans next year.
Her committee colleague Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., wasn’t satisfied with Musk’s planned content moderation council in an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press," saying she doesn’t trust Musk.
“If Elon Musk has said now that he’s going to start a content moderation board, that was one good sign, but I continue to be concerned about that,” Klobuchar said. “I just don’t think people should be making money off of passing on this stuff that’s a bunch of lies.”
On the show “Democracy Now!” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who represents parts of Silicon Valley, said, "I’m concerned what rules he’s going to have to safeguard democracy."
Other Democrats are raising national security concerns about how Musk financed the $44 billion deal. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, urged the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, known as CFIUS, to look into financing from foreign entities, including the Saudi royal family and the kingdom of Qatar.
“Setting aside the vast stores of data that Twitter has collected on American citizens, any potential that Twitter’s foreign ownership will result in increased censorship, misinformation, or political violence is a grave national security concern,” Murphy wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who heads CFIUS.
Musk also has drawn intense criticism in recent weeks for proposing to end the war in Ukraine by allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to keep some territory in eastern Ukraine and suggesting that Taiwan should be governed by China just like Hong Kong. Some critics said those comments may be driven by his other business interests: One of Musk’s other companies, the electric carmaker Tesla, had record sales of China-made vehicles in September.
“There’s just a massive tension here … between this so-called free speech absolutism and the reality of how he’s going to operate these platforms to maintain good favor with repressive regimes around the world,” said Lehrich, of Accountable Tech.