Two days before Elon Musk closed the deal to acquire Twitter on the court mandated deadline of October 28, he posted a short videoclip of himself cheerfully carrying a sink into the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, saying, “let that sink in.” He certainly did not waste any time making sure his presence sank in to the company, its staff, its advertisers, and its users.
Besides quickly laying off roughly half of Twitter’s global staff within a week of the takeover, Musk also changed his Twitter bio twice in recent weeks, first declaring himself as the “Chief Twit,” then Twitter’s “Complaint Hotline Operator.” These are hardly just random playful titles he lavishes on himself. Musk dissolved the company’s board and named himself sole director of Twitter just before the acquisition was completed, as disclosed in a securities filing on October 31, and fired the company’s executive team, including its chief executive officer and chief financial officer. In effect, Musk is not only the Chief Twit, but the Only Twit. The company will also be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange on November 8, according to its filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, leaving Musk with total control over the privately-held company afterward.
Regarding Twitter’s content moderation policies, Musk said in his tweets on takeover day that he had “not yet made any changes to Twitter’s content moderation policies.” He added that the company would be “forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints,” and “no major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.” But with Musk as the sole director and only person in charge of Twitter, he might as well also be the sole “complaint hotline operator” cum content decision-maker, with or without advice from people he will select later. Musk already fired the company’s entire human rights team, the entire “ethical AI” team, and almost the entire communications team.
National Security Implications
Yet, such chaos at Twitter after the Musk takeover pales in comparison to the serious national security alarms that were sounded in the weeks prior the closing of the deal. In a Financial Times interview published in early October, Musk disclosed that Chinese authorities made clear their disapproval of his Starlink rollout in Ukraine and sought assurances that he would not sell Starlink in China (read Taiwan).
Indeed, Musk has maintained a close relationship with senior Chinese government officials, having invited the Chinese ambassador in the U.S. to a test drive in an auto-piloted Tesla vehicle with him. Meanwhile, his Shanghai “Gigafactory” aim to churn out 1 million electric vehicles a year for Tesla, and last year already made up half of the company’s total global output. Moreover, China is already Tesla’s second largest market in the world, after the United States.
China can use its importance to Tesla to leverage influence on Musk’s other businesses, exemplified by the request made to Musk about Starlink, a system supported by SpaceX, another company with Musk as its chairman and CEO. The national security implications of SpaceX and its Starlink platform are obvious, direct, and significant, on top of its deployment in Ukraine and other countries such as Iran, in support of U.S. military or Internet freedom policy goals. But what about Twitter?
Although it is blocked by China’s Great Firewall and is not accessible inside the country, Twitter remains a major target for Beijing’s apparatus of online propaganda and coercion. As recently as in December, 2021, Twitter removed 2,048 accounts that were said to have “amplified Chinese Communist Party narratives related to the treatment of the Uyghur population.” Since the Musk takeover of Twitter and his decision to fire the company’s human rights team, users and civil society organizations have voiced many concerns, including over the possibility of Twitter turning over users’ personal details to China. Chinese authorities already have a track record of detaining people over things they tweeted, including while living overseas.
All these issues combined with a downsized workforce may result in weaker cybersecurity, much higher risk levels and potentially disastrous outcomes for Twitter and all its users.
And there is more to worry about than China. Also in early October, Ian Bremmer, head of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote to his clients that Musk informed him about a recent conversation he had with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, just before Musk tweeted to urge Ukrainians to accept a negotiated solution with Russia by ceding Crimea to its enemy. Musk denied Bremmer’s allegation but Bremmer stood by his “honest” reporting.
Despite all these potentially explosive self-disclosures, and others’ allegations, over Musk’s connections and possible vulnerabilities to foreign powers, no action was taken by Washington to scrutinize any national security concerns associated with the Twitter deal. On the contrary, the White House actually came out to emphatically deny any security review. The silence was deafening.
Not Enough Tools for Timely Actions
After Musk completed his deal and released his list of equity co-investors, Senator Chris Murphy called on the government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) to conduct an investigation into the “national security implications” of the involvement of Saudi Arabian investors, who will become the second largest owner of Twitter behind Musk.
However, the scope of CFIUS is limited to foreign investments that may result in the control of U.S. businesses, with evidence that the transaction may threaten national security. Although its investigative power is not time-limited, in the case of Twitter, it may be limited only to the scrutiny of interests from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, rather than the more critical risks imposed by Musk himself – his own possible conflicts stemming from his business empire, with potential vulnerabilities exposed to China and Russia.
If the Biden administration can be so resolute on U.S. technological competitiveness in areas such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence, to the extent of restricting sales and investments to China for not only U.S. firms but also those from allies such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Europe, the way it treats Musk’s growing technology empire is grossly inadequate and inconsistent. Consider this: one man, who openly admits his close ties to Chinese government officials, now owns the largest electric vehicle maker in the world, with huge leverage in technologies such as AI, autonomous driving, batteries, robotics, and advanced manufacturing, all areas where China strives to excel; the largest low Earth orbit satellite company in the world, with leading space and communications technologies for both military and civilian use; and one of the largest and most influential global social media platforms in the world. The national security implications here should be clear to see — standalone or combined.
Maybe too much effort has been spent and wasted in Washington on regulating social media and enforcing content moderation by mistakenly focusing on reforming provisions such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. There are obvious loopholes in the U.S. regulatory regimes as far as technology and national security oversights are concerned. In this case, multiple companies in different sectors, with interlocking interests in a global market, are involved, yet there is simply no avenue to demand timely actions. As the Twitter deal demonstrates, national security matters must be looked at in a more holistic way. Changes are urgently needed.