Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) met for more than an hour in his Capitol Hill office with tech magnate Elon Musk this week to discuss the future of artificial intelligence (AI), a sign of a possible thaw in relations between Democrats and one of the nation’s most powerful CEOs.
Relations between Musk and Democratic lawmakers had soured steadily since Musk announced his plans to buy Twitter last year.
Many Democrats were outraged over his decision to cut content moderators from the company and reinstate former President Trump’s account, also unhappy that one of the nation’s richest men suddenly controlled what they viewed as the nation’s digital town square.
Lawmakers voiced suspicions about Musk’s plans for the company and the influence of foreign sources of money over its heavily indebted operations.
Yet Musk, who last year urged voters to support Republican candidates in the midterm election, reached out to Schumer recently to discuss the future AI, which policymakers and investors think could have a huge future impact on the economy.
Schumer’s meeting comes a year after the Democratic leader expressed concern about Musk’s purchase of the company.
“In many ways, Twitter has become a dark, dark place. I hope it doesn’t get any darker,” Schumer told reporters in April of last year when asked about Musk’s acquisition of a social media platform that has come to dominate political discussion in the United States.
Schumer told reporters in December that he would be open to reviewing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social media companies from legal liability, when he was asked about reports that hate speech on Twitter had increased significantly since Musk took over the company.
Other Democrats expressed concerns about Musk’s takeover of Twitter a year ago.
“He said he wants to make it this global message board. My first question to him, ‘Is your message board going to include Donald Trump?’” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) asked in response to the news that Musk would buy Twitter for $44 billion. “That’s a key question. If he lets that man rant and rave on Twitter, not in the best interests of Americans’ future.”
Democrats’ fears were confirmed when Musk restored Trump’s Twitter account in November, which the company under previous ownership had suspended permanently after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson at the time said Musk allowed “hate speech and violent conspiracies on his platform” and called on advertisers funding Twitter to “immediately pause all advertising.”
A study published last week — by researchers at University of Southern California; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, Merced; and Oregon State University — found that hate speech has increased significantly on Twitter since Musk took over the company in October. They conclude the volume of hate speech on the site doubled.
Musk’s standing with Democrats didn’t improve much in the following months.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) raised concerns in January over Twitter’s opaque financing and questioned whether foreign interests could gain enough influence over the social media platform ahead of the 2024 election to threaten national security.
“There are national security implications, there are democracy implications, there are commercial implications and there are plain old how-we-talk-to-each other implications,” she told The Hill at the time.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) in October called on the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review Twitter’s ownership and governance, pointing out that Musk collected at least $1.89 billion from members of the Saudi royal family to finance his purchase of the company.
“Setting aside the vast stores of data that Twitter has collected on American citizens, any potential that Twitter’s foreign ownership will result in increased censorship, misinformation, or political violence is a grave national security concern,” Murphy warned in a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
A thaw in relations came earlier this month when Schumer announced he has been discussing and circulating with experts a high-level regulatory framework for artificial intelligence.
His proposal would require companies to allow independent experts to review and test AI technologies before they are released to the public.
Musk hailed the announcement as “good news.”
“AI regulation will be far more important than it may seem today,” he tweeted.
He and Schumer confirmed that AI was a prominent topic at their private meeting Wednesday.
“That which affects safety of the public has, over time, become regulated to ensure that companies do not cut corners. AI has great power to do good and evil. Better the former,” Musk tweeted shortly after midnight Thursday.
Schumer said they also discussed Tesla’s plant in Buffalo, N.Y., and described it as “a very good meeting.”
Musk is the CEO of both Tesla and Twitter, as well as the CEO of SpaceX, which manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft.
Jim Kessler, a former Schumer aide who now serves as executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said Schumer has a long history of working with people with whom he may disagree with on a range of other issues.
“First and foremost, Schumer is a pragmatist, and if factories are going to be built in Buffalo, he’s going to support factories being built in Buffalo,” he said.
“Also, Schumer is very interested and also concerned about AI, and he’s going to seek out the smartest voices on all sides in this multifaceted debate,” he added. “Schumer talks to a wide array of people. He really does.
“I don’t think it’s, ‘Do Democrats need to have a good relationship with Elon Musk or not?’ I don’t. But [Schumer] is going to seek out the smartest voices of a whole range of areas and take that into account,” he said.
Senate Democrats are split about whether it’s a good move to develop a better relationship with Musk, who continues to draw scrutiny because of his controversial statements and management of Twitter.
“The man employs an awful lot of people. OK? And the bottom line is: Try to get along with everybody,” said centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) when asked whether it would be wise for Democrats to bury the hatchet with Musk.
Other Democrats continue to have a negative view of Musk or at least serious reservations.
“My views on Musk at the moment are pretty negative,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “But there are going to be things that we’re going to need to deal with regarding Section 230 and there’s a whole of array of those kinds of issues that surround social media.”
Section 230 is the provision in U.S. law that protects social media companies from legal liability for content posted on their platforms.
Warren said Musk’s unilateral control over Twitter gives him too much power.
“Elon Musk wants to make all the decisions about a major communications platform. I think that is a problem for our country. One person should not be able to go off in secret and fulfill his every whim by whatever set of rules he wants to put in place and however he wants to change them, hide them or use them to further his other interests,” she said.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is active on tech-related issues, said, “I have great respect for Elon Musk and what he’s done.”
But he added, “I do worry that some of his comments about the Communist Party in China and their approach doesn’t make sense to me.”
Musk came under fire last year for recommending that Taiwan could become a special administrative zone under Chinese rule.
He also drew criticism for favorably comparing China’s “great” energy and smart, hardworking people to what he described as the complacency and entitlement he said pervaded New York, California’s Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Democrats’ concerns about foreign influence over Twitter were stirred again in February when Chinese state-run media warned Musk about responding to Tweets about the COVID-19 virus leaking from a research laboratory in Wuhan.