Elon Musk with two pieces of black tape over his mouth
Image: Christian Marquardt/Getty Images; Protocol

Forget the US: Elon Musk’s real Twitter troubles come from abroad

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today I’m listening to spooky music and thinking about how running a giant international company may actually require some sacrifices and compromises for Musk. Plus, questions are swirling about whether Russia hacked Liz Truss’ phone, and Lyft is both the savior of, and biggest liability for, a California ballot initiative.

Bird is the wor(l)d

During Elon Musk’s first few days in charge of Twitter, he retweeted conspiracy theories about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, began to get rid of the people who make the site the tolerable, and oversaw a spike in hate speech despite promising advertisers he wouldn’t let the service “become a free-for-all hellscape.” Many of those controversies arose in the U.S. market or the company’s San Francisco HQ. The truth is, though, that Musk’s headaches at home may prove miniscule compared to the pressures he’ll face abroad.

Take, for instance, the major world regions where the minimally moderated Twitter that Musk wants to see is going to run into legal problems.

  • There’s the EU, of course, where the Digital Services Act will try to curb viral “dangerous disinformation” and will force companies to put in place systems for flagging illegal goods and content for faster removal. The bloc’s leaders are already watching Musk.
  • India, where the government has blocked certain posts and local officials are responsible for compliance in a way some observers have compared to hostage-taking, is standing up a board to examine content moderation decisions.
  • Turkey is moving toward penalizing the spread of misinformation with multiyear jail sentences.
  • And then there is a long list of countries with much less internet freedom to begin with, such as Iran, Russia, and especially China, where Tesla has a lot of business interests that Beijing might well think about using as leverage.

At the same time, international governments already seem to be trying to ally with Musk, influence him, or draw him (further) into their own foreign policy struggles.

  • For instance, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev lavished praise on Musk while trying to get him to stop supplying Starlink to Ukraine.
  • A holding company run by a powerful Saudi prince (and of which the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund owns a significant chunk) is now Twitter’s second-largest shareholder despite Musk’s criticism of the country’s free-speech record.
  • And some accounts that exist to boost international governments have begun to ask Musk to remove labels that Twitter’s prior leaders put on them.

Musk’s show of responding to calls for new content policies makes it that much harder for him to dodge the difficulties on these issues.

  • That’s especially true if he wants to “continue to fly around the world and shake the hands of authoritarians,” as Facebook’s former security chief Alex Stamos pointed out on Twitter.

Balancing all this was always difficult for the people who ran Twitter full-time. For Musk, it could be almost unsustainably chaotic — in a way that worsens things back home.

  • Free speech in the U.S. is one thing, but lawmakers won’t be too happy if foreign states are all over the platform openly undermining American interests and subverting its democracy.
  • Republicans who are hoping to take over the House have already signaled they’re going to dig into the parallel issue of Chinese influence on TikTok as soon as they have the opportunity.
  • They may be cheering Musk now, but the GOP won’t exactly be happy if he, too, is helping out the Chinese Communist Party, and Republican leadership may be willing to allow Democrats some leeway to keep up pressure on the issue.
  • Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said Monday he wants CFIUS to look into the deal over the Saudi connection, for instance, although the kingdom’s smaller stake in the company is years old.

In addition, whatever Congress wants to do — or at least to threaten to do — to tech in the next two years will come down on Twitter as well. If he can’t get control of the international issues, Musk may very well find he has fewer allies than he thought among Republicans, and he could find few friends among Democrats. His main headaches may be international, but Musk may soon find out just how easily trouble crosses borders.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

In Washington

U.S. self-driving truck company TuSimple is under investigation by the FBI, SEC, and CFIUS for its ties to a small Chinese firm, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Several tech companies including Google, Apple, and Microsoft signed onto amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to leave affirmative action rules in place. The justices are hearing arguments in the case on Monday.

The White House this week is hosting a summit on ransomware. Representatives of both foreign countries and the private sector are due to attend.

Amid a potential repeat of efforts to undermine confidence in midterm election results, CISA Director Jen Easterly touted her “confidence in the integrity of our election infrastructure.”


The news is out! Join the Financial Technology Association’s inaugural Fintech Summit: Shaping the Future of Finance, produced in partnership with Protocol. Taking place in Washington, D.C., on November 16th, the Summit will examine the most pressing issues in fintech.

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On Protocol

Lyft’s funding of a California ballot measure to subsidize EV’s saved the initiative, but now that money has become a liability. Opponents of Prop 30, who have their own corporate ties, have painted the measure as a giveaway to the company, resulting in strange bedfellows on either side of the issue trading accusations.

Eric Schmidt will tell anyone who’ll listen that the U.S. is losing a battle against China for AI supremacy. Yet Schmidt, with extensive ties to both the Pentagon and the business world, also happens to be one of the most prominent investors in the AI sector that’s poised to benefit from the resulting sense of urgency.

TikTok is facing intense scrutiny in its role spreading election misinformation, but former staff say high turnover plays a role in the problem.

Coming soon

Protocol Live: AI and chips. This virtual event hosted by Protocol will bring together tech and policy experts to discuss the future of AI-related partnerships existing among tech businesses, developers, and AI researchers in the U.S. and China. Join us at 10:30 a.m. PDT / 1:30 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Nov. 3.RSVP here.

Around the world

The U.K. government is facing calls for an investigation following an unverified report that Russia hacked a phone belonging to former Prime Minister Liz Truss ahead of her brief tenure.

A ProPublica report found Google’s ads business makes it possible for disinformation sites in Europe, Latin America, and Africa to monetize their dreck despite the company’s stated mission to stamp out falsities. In one case, Google’s tools continued to let advertisers pay for space on a site that the U.S. sanctioned for its ties to a prominent Bosnian Serb separatist.

In the media, culture, and metaverse

Musk’s plan to juice revenue from Twitter reportedly includes a $20/month charge to maintain verified status. This is both a sort of fun thumb in the eye to a certain class of know-it-all Twitter obsessive (e.g., me) and a very bad idea if you like having a gauge on the accuracy of information coming from news outlets, reporters, government bodies, activists, market participants, first responders, public health officials, and anyone else who might be valuable to spoof. It also wouldn’t raise much money. Many high-profile users are responding unfavorably to the idea.

CrowdTangle, the social media analysis tool owned by Meta, reportedly told a number of journalists and academics it’d be kicking them off when it wasn’t actually going to. With the midterms coming up, people who have studied social media’s effect on elections were particularly worried, but Facebook has now said the alerts went out in error.

Unbreak this site

Some celebrities have announced — or at least claimed — they’ll be leaving Twitter now that Musk is in charge. According to NBC, Shonda Rhimes, Sara Bareilles, and Toni Braxton are all logging off.


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