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Why the midterms could make or break Twitter and TikTok

Protocol Policy

Hello and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today we look at how the fortunes of TikTok, Twitter, and Meta will change with the upcoming midterms cycle. Also, we have an update on all the Twitter happenings under Musk, and Microsoft will likely need to reckon with its role in China’s AI ecosystem.

Social problems

Midterms are just six days away. The battle for Congress is still very much up in the air: As of Wednesday, FiveThirtyEight models give Republicans a 51% chance to take the Senate — almost a coin flip’s chance — but an 83% chance to take the House. Of course, if the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that we should be skeptical of election meters. But it’s typical for the party in the White House to lose the House at midterms, and Democratic leaders are reportedly preparing to lose the House, as key races seem to be tipping in Republicans’ favor.

This year’s midterms are perfectly poised to pick social media winners and losers. It wasn’t so long ago that you could treat social media companies as a political monolith: The companies fought fiercely against one another within Silicon Valley, but in D.C., their interests were generally aligned. That’s not true anymore, especially with the incredible rise of Beijing-backed TikTok and Elon Musk’s recent $44 billion acquisition of Twitter. Since the social media landscape has become more heterogeneous, so will the political fortunes of Meta, TikTok, and Twitter.

TikTok will face greater national security scrutiny if Republicans take Congress. When he was in office, former President Trump unsuccessfully tried to force TikTok into selling its U.S. operations to Oracle. A few years and Buzzfeed scoops later, the mainstream Republican party has come around to the idea that TikTok poses a national security threat.

  • In September, for example, Sen. Mitt Romney said it was a huge risk to allow “an authoritarian regime to have a social media capability of the scale they have in our country.”
  • And though he has no power to do anything about it, Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr told Axios just this week that he didn’t see any path forward for TikTok “other than a ban.”
  • TikTok’s rivals see this as a vulnerability. Meta hired a Republican consultancy to go after TikTok on national security grounds, including by planting op-eds and directly lobbying politicians, according to a Washington Post report. A staffer for the consultancy, Targeted Victory, even called for the messaging to highlight that Congress wasn’t focusing enough on the issue, according to leaked emails obtained by The Post.
  • If a Republican Congress takes action against TikTok, President Biden would have a hard time going against it. To be clear, Biden would be in a lose-lose position: He could either veto an anti-TikTok bill — which would play into the narrative that he goes easy on China — or he could sign off on it and take away Americans’ bread and circus (or, more likely, corral them into a less entertaining circus).

Twitter made a political U-turn under Elon Musk, which could play in its favor. Prior to the Musk takeover, Twitter had become a top political target for Republicans, who decried the company’s decision to ban the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story just a few days before the 2020 election. Musk called the ban “obviously incredibly inappropriate” and Republicans have largely welcomed his acquisition. Though there are national security concerns with Saudi Arabia funding Musk’s acquisition, Republicans (and Democrats) have largely been happy to give the Kingdom a pass.

If Republicans take Congress, Twitter’s gain could be Meta’s loss. Republicans — and their voter base — are angry about what they perceive as Big Tech censorship. But with Twitter suddenly switching sides, Meta might take center stage as their social media punching bag. House Republicans have already indicated they want to investigate ties between the FBI and Meta, following Mark Zuckerberg’s disclosure that Facebook had been communicating with the law enforcement agency leading up to the 2020 election.

TikTok could become a useful decoy for Meta. The more Congress focuses on the national security angle, the better off Meta will be. We know Meta already recognizes this dynamic, based on its decision to go after TikTok on national security grounds. For Meta, dealing with a Republican Congress will be a lot like dealing with a bear in the woods: You don’t have to outrun the bear, just your fellow hikers.

— Hirsh Chitkara (email | twitter)

In the media, culture, and metaverse

Here’s the latest on the policy fallout from Musk’s early days at Twitter:

  • Musk said permanently banned accounts won’t be coming back for a few weeks, which helps him sidestep the return of Trump during the tense final days of the midterms.
  • Musk also said a top safety official at the company met with civil rights leaders “about how Twitter will continue to combat hate & harassment & enforce its election integrity policies.” Conservatives were very triggered.
A coalition of civil society and liberal groups led by Free Press are pressuring top Twitter advertisers to suspend their activities if Musk alters the survice’s community standards. The letter went to the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, Meta, and more.

In Washington

Rep. Lori Trahan introduced a bipartisan bill that would criminalize websites that assist people in killing themselves.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants the FTC and DOJ to look into Big Tech’s automotive ambitions.

Ted Ullyot, a former general counsel to Facebook and AOL, is planning to launch a law firm with former Trump attorney general Bill Barr, according to Axios. Ullyot also ran the policy shop at Andreessen Horowitz.


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On Protocol

Microsoft could be forced to grapple with the thriving AI ecosystem it fostered in China.

Meanwhile, global, open-source collaborations have brought AI to the cusp of world-changing status, but they’re under ever-increasing pressure as the U.S. and China become increasingly nationalistic on the tech.

And questions about how to write trade controls could get in the way of the Commerce Department’s hope of using them to slow down China on quantum computing.

Tumblr will officially allow nudity again, but is still stopping short of “depictions of sexually explicit acts.” Until 2018, the site had included a mix of erotica, porn, memes, and blogging, but it pulled back amid growing worries about child abuse images on the internet, changes to Section 230, and pressure from digital intermediaries like app stores.

Nope, not here either

A Twitter user suggested (seemingly jokingly) that users “all just migrate over to the same google doc.” She then actually created such a document, resulting in more than 250 pages in Comic Sans. On Tuesday, though, the user, who described herself as a Scotland-based graduate student, said “the Nazis have ruined” it and switched the document back to view mode.


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