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Republicans Turn a Blind Eye to Elon Musk’s Twitter Manipulation
“If he wants to get his word out that he owns the show, doesn’t he own it?”
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Elon Musk’s unstable reign at Twitter is continuing to draw media attention. At times, the Tesla billionaire has behaved in ways that would appear to run afoul of the standard Republican criticisms of Big Tech: He has arbitrarily changed the platform’s rules to benefit himself, altered algorithms to fit his personal agenda, and colluded with powerful officials and sympathetic journalists to shape his company’s public narrative. That’s why it’s so strange that Musk’s antics do not appear to have irked any Republicans.
According to a report this week from Platformer, Musk became livid in the aftermath of the Super Bowl (an event he attended in the company of Rupert Murdoch) because President Joe Biden’s “fly, Eagles, fly” tweet received more impressions than Musk’s own “Go Eagles!” tweet. Facing threats of termination if they did not deliver—one senior engineer was reportedly fired for suggesting that interest in Musk’s tweets had simply waned—Twitter’s engineers were given the “high urgency” late-night task of solving this “problem,” which they did by rejiggering Twitter’s algorithm to boost each of Musk’s tweets “by a factor of 1,000.”
As one engineer told Platformer following this episode, “I think we’re past the point of believing that he actually wants what’s best for everyone here.”
That frustration isn’t the result of a one-off instance of unreasonability on the CEO’s part. Musk by now has established a pattern of chaotic actions since taking over the social media company for $44 billion last year. Others include:
Banning journalists and other accounts for tweeting publicly available flight tracking information for his private jet, which he dramatically referred to as “assassination coordinates.” (Musk later reinstated the journalists—partly in response to a poll on how long he should keep them suspended.)
Abruptly eliminating the Twitter Spaces function after journalists who had been suspended from Twitter were able to join a Spaces-enabled conversation with him and offer criticize him. (Spaces was later reactivated.)
Mulling new restrictions to Twitter’s API that could prevent researchers from accessing the company’s data. Wired reports that this would hinder efforts to study “how misinformation and hate speech spreads on social media.”
So it’s not much of a surprise that Musk this year has strategized with Republicans about Twitter, most recently calling Sen. Ted Cruz to discuss the platform’s future. When I spoke with Cruz on Wednesday, he said he and Musk talked about the “Twitter files,” the series of reports written and tweeted by journalists Musk hand-picked to be given access to the company’s internal information about conversations the company’s previous management had with “the White House, the FBI, the CIA, Democrat members of Congress.” (Whether Cruz is aware of the irony that he is now a member of Congress strategizing about Twitter with its CEO was unclear.)
I asked Cruz, along with some of Big Tech’s other biggest critics in the Senate, about Musk’s recent erratic behavior and alleged manipulation of the platform’s algorithm to elevate himself. I was curious to see if they might have the same concerns now that they’ve expressed in the past about Twitter’s “censorship” of conservatives.
“I’m not concerned,” Cruz told me. His response proved to be typical of the group.
“Censorship is a specific danger to free speech, and deplatforming Americans because of their political views is wrong and dangerous, particularly when it is systemic and when it is on behalf of government, as the ‘Twitter files’ revealed that it was,” Cruz added. “The individual management decision of a particular tech company is not particularly a matter of public concern. A systematic use of monopoly power to silence those with whom you disagree is qualitatively different.”
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley characterized Musk’s personal account boosting as “kind of silly,” adding, “I guess that’s the benefits of owning the company.”
“I’m most concerned about what these guys do—these tech companies—to other users,” Hawley said. “I’ll just say this. If you’re telling me that he was shadowbanning, or decreasing, or boosting arbitrary other users’ engagement, I’d be concerned about it.”
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida offered the “it’s a private company” chestnut—notably absent from Republicans’ complaints about pre-Musk Twitter—but added the caveat that “with the amount of influence they have, they ought to make sure it’s fair.”
Tommy Tuberville of Alabama was a little more blunt: “If he wants to get his word out that he owns the show, doesn’t he own it?”
Several other Senate Republicans—including Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, fresh off a call for new investigations into “Big Tech”—declined to comment.
Musk’s rocky tenure at Twitter has elicited the attention of some Senate Democrats. They have the power to investigate his handling of the company, much in the same way House Republicans are litigating the activities of Twitter under its previous ownership.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has already inquired about Musk’s potential conflicts of interests and how they may harm Tesla’s workers and shareholders.
“Despite widespread concerns about Mr. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter while serving as CEO of Tesla, it remains unclear whether the Tesla Board—which has key decision-making authority within the company—is adequately governing the company or if it has established clear rules and policies to address the risks to Tesla posed by Mr. Musk’s dual roles,” Warren wrote in a December letter to Robyn Denholm, who chairs the Tesla board of directors.
House Republicans on the new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government have subpoenaed the CEOs of major tech companies Alphabet, Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft. Musk was notably absent from their subpoenas to haul in Big Tech’s top brass. Whether Musk gets the same treatment that many tech executives have from Congress will most likely be up to Senate Democrats.
Another big stock dump from a Congressman
On Tuesday, I noted a major round of stock sales by Michigan Democrat Shri Thanedar, which was all sales totaling as much as $1.1 million. Well later this week, Republican Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma disclosed the sale of potentially $5.6 million, along with the purchase of as much as $645,000 from a joint account with his spouse.
Hern’s sales included as much as $5,000,000 in Microsoft, as well as hundreds of thousands in other industries, including energy, defense, and financial services.
Hern has repeatedly come under fire for trading on stocks relevant to his legislative work on the Ways & Means Committee. When Hern traded on UnitedHealthcare stocks, which conflicts with the committee’s jurisdiction on Medicare, his spokesperson told the New York Times that Hern does not have “any day-to-day control or management over his stock purchases or his businesses.”
Hern went on to disclose the purchase of more UnitedHealthcare stock in January.