Senator Chris Murphy on Elon’s Acquisition of Twitter

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Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: On October 31st Halloween, Senator Chris Murphy sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Murphy is a Democrat from Connecticut who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he had some questions about Twitter, specifically about the Saudi stake in Twitter, the Kingdom Holding Company and the private office of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owned Twitter shares worth $1.89 billion. They held on to that stake when Twitter went private under Elon Musk’s control. The Saudis are now the second largest investor in Twitter. Which, for Murphy, raises some potential national security concerns that he would like to see evaluated by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Also known as serious. In a press conference on Wednesday, President Biden seemed to agree.

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Speaker 2: I think that. Elon Musk’s. Cooperation and or. Technical relationships with other countries is worthy of being looked at. Whether or not he is doing anything inappropriate. I’m not suggesting that. I’m suggesting that words were being looked at and and but that’s all I’ll say.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: So I called up Senator Murphy on Thursday afternoon to talk about it and some of the other major tech challenges facing Congress. Senator, welcome to the show.

Speaker 3: Thanks for having me.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: I’m going to do a quick disclosure that we did go to college together, though. You are two years ahead of me. But just so that’s out there.

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Speaker 3: Older and wiser.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: I’m going to get right to it. You asked for serious the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. to review Saudi Arabia’s stake in Twitter. Do you know if that review is currently happening?

Speaker 3: I don’t. I’ve made the request. I have not heard a response. I think it’s pretty standard practice for cities to take a look at a major foreign investment like this and a pretty significant social media and communications company. And I hope to hear from them soon.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: It seemed like the president backed your desire for some sort of retroactive investigation on Wednesday. That must have been encouraging.

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Speaker 3: It was.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: What do you think? He’s interested in us now?

Speaker 3: Well, I mean, listen, I think that there’s a real question as to why the Saudis didn’t take their money out like most everybody else did. Like, I think it would have been financially wise for them to do. The Saudis may have kept their money in given promises Musk made to them about things he would do with respect to content that the Saudis didn’t like.

Speaker 3: It just makes sense for us to investigate exactly why the Saudis decided to participate with Musk in this purchase and what the implications are for the United States. I mean, let’s just be clear. Musk is presenting his purchase as a means to promote free speech. The Saudis are an unlikely partner. If Musk is buying Twitter in order to open up channels of political dissent. The Saudis interest is exactly the opposite. And so I just think it makes sense for us to try to understand exactly what the Saudis are getting out of this. If it’s just a financial investment, there’s no strings attached. Maybe Sofia’s blesses it and it moves forward, but we should at least ask those questions.

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Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: You raised your concerns to Secretary Yellen on October 31st, Halloween. Have you gotten any feedback from Treasury since then?

Speaker 3: I have. And we’ve, you know, also expressed an interest to the White House. And frankly, I mean, I think it’s time for us to all step back and reconsider what I think is going to be a growing trend of foreign nations investing in U.S. media companies and social media platforms. Frankly, the Saudis investment in Twitter freaks me out less than the Chinese government’s relationship to Tik Tok. I think it’s probably time for us to sort of really think about what it means for political debate, what it means for the health of our kids and families that these big foreign governments, often adversaries of the United States, increasingly have a pretty clear line into our most important means of communication.

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Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: You know, I was actually about to ask you about TikTok. Marco Rubio and Mike Gallagher have just basically said the app should be banned in America. Do you agree with that?

Speaker 3: I mean, I think if we can’t unwind the Chinese government’s connection with Tik Tok, the downside outweighs the upside. Hmm. Listen, my kids are addicted to Tik tok. But it’s candy. I mean, it’s not providing a ton of value, and it can be so easily manipulated by the Chinese to promote either sort of quiet or very loud propaganda. The information they have, the ability to collect on our kids. And, you know, Americans in general is incredibly scary.

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Speaker 3: So, I mean, I get that a lot of people love Tik Tok. I get that it is an incredibly powerful medium for artists to communicate. So I maybe shouldn’t be so harsh on the product. It’s an important product, obviously has a lot of value for people in this country. But the security concerns around Tik Tok, the way in which the Chinese can gather information, the way in which they can message to Americans is, I think, really scary.

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Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: Do you have similar national security concerns about StarLink and and Elon Musk’s tweets about Russia and about Ukraine?

Speaker 3: My primary concern right now is about Elon Musk’s partners. But I think President Biden is perhaps opening up a broader conversation about questions we may need to ask about Musk’s business relationships in Russia and in China. I don’t have deep knowledge of those relationships, but as he continues to increase his influence and his ownership stake in critical U.S. companies, it makes sense to just make sure we know the extent of his relationships with foreign governments.

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Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: I mean, Sidious has the authority to retroactively undo acquisitions, which it did do during during the Trump administration. I mean, would you like to see that happen with Twitter?

Speaker 3: I’m not prejudging the findings here. I think if you should sort of require some disclosure about the agreements that may or may not exist between the Saudis, this particular Fund Kingdom Holdings and Twitter, it may be that if he comes to the conclusion that there isn’t any nefarious intent, but we should at least ask the questions. And hopefully with President Biden’s comments this week, that process will begin.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: You know, one of the things you wrote in your letter was that if Syria doesn’t act, then then Congress should. And I wonder both what that would look like and also whether Elon Musk would even listen to you all. After all, he has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the SEC and the FTC.

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Speaker 3: As you as you referenced. There is a growing bipartisan interest in foreign government ownership and stake in US media companies. It is true for the time being, it seems as if Elon Musk is a bit of a darling inside the Republican Party. And so query whether people like Marco Rubio or Representative Gallagher would be as interested in taking on the question of Elon Musk’s partners in Twitter as they are about the Chinese stake in Tik Tok. But I do think that there is going to be some growing bipartisan consensus that we should be really careful about foreign governments owning companies that have this broad access to America’s Americans private information.

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Speaker 3: So I don’t think that Elon Musk should feel that he is immune from either investigation or regulation, because I think this train is coming. There’s not a lot of bipartisan agreement in Washington, But A, the Venn diagram increasingly has a lot of dark shade when it comes to foreign governments ownership of technology companies.

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Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: You’re one of the younger members of the Senate. You are actually on Twitter a decent amount. What do you think of the platform since he’s taken over?

Speaker 3: I mean, I haven’t seen so far a lot of changes that directly impact me. Yesterday for two hour, nobody’s.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: Paying eight bucks and saying, I’m Chris Murphy.

Speaker 3: I’m not paying. All right. Well, there’s plenty of, you know, accounts out there with my name attached to it, But I’m lucky that I have enough followers that people don’t need the blue check to know which one is me. Yesterday, I had a new little tag attached to my name for about 2 hours before it disappeared. So clearly there’s a lot of experimentation happening in the early days of Elon Musk’s tenure there, but I haven’t been amongst those who have been, you know, a pop apocalypse. Dick about the experience as a user. I’m willing to give him time.

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Speaker 3: I have gained a lot of value from Twitter over the years as a means through which I communicate my ideas. Means through which I talk to my constituents. It’s the way that I get a lot of my political information. So I’m hoping that it stays, you know, a platform that has a lot of utility for people like me. And I’m willing to, you know, adopt a bit of a wait and see approach. And so, you know, I don’t want my interest in the Saudi stake to to to to give the impression that I am, you know, piling on.

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Speaker 3: I think, you know, I Musk has done a lot of really beneficial things for the world. I think his technology is world changing and we should appreciate what he has done with respect to battery technology and electric vehicle technology. And I don’t necessarily think that he’s an illegitimate owner of Twitter. I just want to make sure that it remains a place where, you know, both sides get heard equally.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: When we come back, more with Senator Chris Murphy. I want to ask you about a piece you wrote for The Atlantic about neoliberalism. And there are some thoughts about technology in there. And you said that Democrats, not Republicans, are the natural party to make sure that technology works for people instead of people working for technology. And yet Democrats have been in power in in the House and the Senate and the presidency and the two big, you know, bills that are supposed to, quote unquote, take on big tech are just sort of languishing. Why?

Speaker 3: You know, I think it’s a mistake. I think that we should be pushing forward legislation that, you know, both sort of breaks up or attempts to control some of these big tech monopolies, but also legislation that protects our kids and our data and our privacy.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: I mean, should they should they come to the floor in the lame duck session?

Speaker 3: I don’t know that we’re going to have time to bring them to the floor in the lame duck session, because we’re going to have to process in the Senate a ton of nominees, a budget, a handful of other really important pieces of legislation. But I would hope that this is at the top of our agenda next year. Listen, I think that there is a broad national exhaustion with the pace of technological change. I think there are a lot of families out there, a lot of parents who feel like technology is sort of owning them instead of technology working for them. And they want to know when their kids are on these sites that they’re protected and they don’t feel that way right now.

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Speaker 3: So to me, there’s a lot of space for Democrats to lead on the issue of tech regulation, of protecting our data, protecting our kids. And I think that it should be at the top of our agenda next year. Right now, I think a lot of Americans think that Republicans are the sort of more legitimate tech critics, but they, as I argue in that Atlantic piece, are so antithetical or so allergic to government regulation that I don’t think they’ll ever be able to pass the kind of legislation that families want.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: Right. But Democrats haven’t passed it and they’ve been in power.

Speaker 3: I agree. So let’s change that. I think we have other priorities. I think that there, you know, is a subset of the Democratic Party that believes in this neoliberal view, that technology that that that technology only exists in a beneficial cycle of innovation and that regulations would stifle this as a growth industry in the United States. I don’t believe those things. I think tech will continue to grow in the United States, even if we have more significant regulation. And I just think the Democratic Party needs to start acting with more purpose when it comes to technology policy.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: Before I let you go, because I know you’re on a tight schedule, I can’t have you here just after the midterms and not ask you about them. I know that you’re happy about everything in Connecticut, but I’m really curious about what your party is going to do to keep turning up in Georgia. Obviously, that runoff is going to be incredibly important. Independents might stay home. The 18 year olds who just turned 18 cannot vote there because of a voting change or a law change. What do you all do?

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Speaker 3: Well, I think that the more focus on Herschel Walker, the worse it is for him. Remember, he was sort of sharing the stage with a governor who, you know, turned out to be pretty broadly popular. He doesn’t get to share that stage any longer. It’s just Herschel Walker. And I do not think he’s going to stand up very well to this new solo spotlight that he will have. So we I don’t think there’s any doubt that our level of energy is going to be sky high, because I think.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: You’re not really answering my turnout question. You’re talking about Herschel Walker.

Speaker 3: Well, how are we going to keep turnout up?

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: Yeah.

Speaker 3: Well, I mean, we’re going to raise a ton of money to make sure that we knock on everybody’s door. A handful of us just raise close to $1,000,000 in about 12 hours last night online for Raphael Warnock. And, you know, I think that you’re you know, I think the spirits are buoyed inside the Democratic Party. I mean, I think there was a little bit of, you know, hopelessness out there. A lot of folks stayed home, in part because, you know, they believe they might have believed the hype, that this was just going to be a big Republican wave year. So I think in the face of what happened last night, you will actually see Democratic constituency groups, Democratic voters, you know, energized and come out to the polls to support Reverend Warnock. And again, I think that spotlight focused on Herschel Walker will also help turnout. I think the more people see a virtual walker, the more interested a lot of low propensity voters will have in coming out and making sure that he’s not their U.S. senator.

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Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: Senator Chris Murphy, thank you so much.

Speaker 3: Thanks a lot.

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: Chris Murphy is the junior senator from Connecticut. And that is it for our show today. What next?

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show is edited by Jonathan Fisher and Tori Bash. Joanne Levine is the executive producer for what next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger What Next Family. And we are also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you’re a fan of the show, I have a request for you. Become a Slate Plus member. You get all your slate podcasts ad free. Just head on over to Slate.com slash what next?

Lizzie O’Leary, Chris Murphy: Plus, to sign up. We will be back on Sunday with another episode. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.