Billionaire industrialist Elon Musk’s movements have increased alarm about what he will do with Twitter, which he has criticized for being too restrictive about legal but false or hate speech.
Given that autocrats already use the platform to spread lies about opponents and foment violence and chaos, Musk’s seeking approval of two of the most powerful is especially puzzling.
“It’s a very good illustration of why it would be a disaster if Musk were to own Twitter,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “There could be provocations, whether designed by Musk himself or others, that could have global implications.”
The latest scrutiny came on Tuesday, when prominent geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer said Musk had been speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin before tweeting a three-point plan for Ukraine that would leave Crimea, taken by force in 2014. in the hands of Russia.
“I spoke to Elon two weeks ago and he told me that Putin (in a direct conversation with him) was ‘ready to negotiate’…and had outlined the bare minimum the Russian president would need to end the war,” Bremmer wrote. newsletter subscribers. .
As word spread about a second day of intense Russian attacks on civilian population centers in Ukraine, law professors speculated whether Musk should have registered as a foreign agent.
The “Logan Law” became one of the trending Twitter topics in the country, referring to the 223-year-old law that prohibits private citizens from conducting foreign policy.
Only then Musk denies having spoken to Putinfrom a conversation a year and a half ago about space issues.
Bremmer, a columnist and author for Time magazine, as well as head of the consulting firm Eurasia Group, defended his account, tweeting that “Elon Musk told me he had spoken to Putin and the Kremlin directly about Ukraine. he also told me what the Kremlin red lines were.”
Four days earlier, Musk said in a Twitter conversation that he was in contact with “Quite” parties in the war.
The discussion of whether Bremmer was wrong, whether Musk had been exaggerating, or whether Musk was retracting the truth failed to hide two deeper points that Bremmer raised in his newsletter:
First, given opposition to helping Ukraine among some Republicans, Musk’s takeover of Twitter and the likely reinstatement there of former President Donald Trump and some of his allies would further spread opposition and divide the country, threatening Ukraine’s backing. .
Second, acquiring Musk would pit his new free speech business against his old businesses: SpaceX, which relies on the Pentagon and NASA, and Tesla, which relies on China for scarce physical resources.
“Each of these three are big bets on entirely different futures for a technopolar world. They are also the most geopolitically opposed business models I have ever seen pursued by a single person. Or maybe it’s the biggest hedge in the world,” Bremmer wrote.
Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance to Secure Democracy, said Musk’s communications with Chinese and Russian officials and overseas business interests will create unprecedented dilemmas if he closes his deal to buy Twitter.
“Most of the owners of these platforms have had to remain neutral on issues related to politics and geopolitics,” Schafer said. “His nonchalant style of communicating with authoritarians will certainly create challenges with how the platform is perceived.”
Although Musk has said he will remove automated Twitter bots, Schafer said there has been little clarity about how Musk would respond to other types of foreign influence operations. He said it’s unclear how Musk would handle a Russian hack-and-leak operation, such as as occurred in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, or whether Chinese government officials should be able to join the platform that citizens cannot access. A Saudi prince plans to keep a stake in Twitter when the deal closes, even though a former Twitter employee has been convicted of spying on dissidents for the government.
In recent years, major social media companies “have positioned themselves on the side of democracy over autocracy,” Schafer said. “It will be interesting to see what direction that changes if Musk takes over.”
Because Twitter is so much smaller than other social networks like Facebook and YouTube, Musk will have a greater ability to micromanage content moderation decisions and dealings with foreign leaders than executives at other social networks, said Rose Jackson, director of Twitter. Democracy & Tech Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Yet despite Twitter’s smaller size, it wields immense influence over key decision-makers in media and politics, creating unique national security risks.
Jackson said the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, an intergovernmental group that reviews foreign transactions involving US companies, is “probably not sufficient” to address the national security risks presented by the Musk deal.
“It brings to the fore whether we have enough tools to address genuine national security risks and how technology companies, and information technology companies in particular, are financed,” said Jackson, a former businessman and State Department official.
What worries many on Twitter is that most of Musk’s wealth is his stake in Tesla, so in any conflict between worldviews, the platform will likely suffer.
Tesla posted record sales of its vehicles in China in September, even as its competition with local electric-vehicle makers intensifies.
And Twitter already has issues with China potentially collecting information about its critics through advertising and espionage, according to a recent whistleblower complaint. and testimony by former security chief Pieter Zatko. He said the company was warned by the FBI that a Chinese intelligence agent was working there.
After Musk’s tweet about Ukraine a week ago, a Chinese Communist Party Global Times commentator quoted him, writing to half a million Twitter followers that Musk “believes too much in the ‘free speech’ of the US and the West. He will be taught a lesson.”
Within days, Musk opined in a interview with financial times that Taiwan should be governed like Hong Kong, earning praise from China’s ambassador in Washington: “I would like to thank @elonmusk for his call for peace across the Taiwan Strait and his idea of establishing a special administrative zone for Taiwan.”
Barrett and others said they weren’t afraid Musk would bring Twitter to China and back to Russia, saying it could help citizens communicate more.
Instead, they worry that Twitter without much restraint would allow propagandists for those governments to wreak more havoc than they already do.
“Elon Musk is entitled to his opinions and speeches, but let’s just say that Freedom House would welcome the opportunity to brief him more on the egregious human rights violations in Russia, China and other parts of the world before he takes office in one of the world’s most large. technology platforms,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of the nonprofit organization Freedom House, which tracks rights globally.
“Ukrainians are fighting to protect their fundamental freedoms. Taiwan is a democracy where people enjoy those freedoms every day and are aware of the threat they face from the PRC. We believe that all democracies and companies that support democracy should support and defend these freedoms globally.”
Accountable Tech, a left-leaning group that has advocated regulation of tech giants, sent a letter last week to congressional leaders calling for an investigation into Musk’s dealings with foreign actors. The letter says Congress should use its subpoena powers to determine whether Musk is in communication with senior officials in the Kremlin or in China “who could use this acquisition to undermine US national security interests.”
“It is critical that Congress immediately investigate the national security implications of this acquisition and take any action necessary to protect American democracy and independence,” group leaders Nicole Gill and Jesse Lehrich wrote.