Jul 7, 2023 - Podcasts

The politics of social media

This week a federal judge temporarily restricted the Biden Administration's communication with social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The ruling is a response to a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana.

Guests: Axios’ Sara Fischer, Dave Lawler and Asher Price.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Robin Linn and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Friday, July 7th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: renewables help keep Texas electricity costs low. Plus, what next week’s NATO summit could mean for the war in Ukraine.

But first, the politics of social media. Our weekly state of play… is our One Big Thing.

NIALA: This week, a federal judge temporarily restricted the Biden administration's communication with social media platforms. The ruling is a response to a lawsuit filed by the Republican Attorneys General of Missouri and Louisiana alleging the administration pushed social media companies to censor Americans freedom of speech. For our Friday State of Play, Axios’ Sara Fischer is here with the big picture. Sara, first, what do we need to know about this ruling in terms of what exactly it prohibits or stops Biden officials from doing?

SARA FISCHER: Basically, it's saying that Biden administration officials shouldn't be communicating with social media platforms. And the reason that they're arguing that is because there have been instances in the past few years – if you think about the pandemic, if you think about elections – where officials from the government have had to work with tech platforms to ensure that things like voter fraud, misinformation weren't proliferating. The data that tech platforms are going to rely on, it is not necessarily going to just come from their own research and monitoring. They're gonna work with the government to see if they're finding anything suspicious, and then they could limit it on their platform.

So I think that what this ruling is trying to say is that the government has overstepped its balances and its requests for what social media platforms don't or do elevate, but the challenge here, Niala, is if you go too broad, you could potentially limit communications for critical oversight.

NIALA: So the preliminary injunction was considered a victory for the GOP. What does this tell us about Republicans' greatest fears about social media?

SARA: I mean, they've been saying for months that they think that the government has been colluding with social media to sort of censor their viewpoints. Even at the turn of this new Congress, that was one of the first priorities that the GOP said that they wanted to tackle, was finding out whether there was some sort of collusion relationship between the government and social media. Now, there's been very little proof of this. I know that the Biden administration, of course, has tried to pressure social media companies around things like misinformation, et cetera. But, it's likely in the appeal process we're gonna find out a lot more about what the communication between the government and social platforms has looked like over the years.

NIALA: The Biden administration is appealing this court ruling. When we're talking about the Republican sensibility about social media, where do Democrats fall on this?

SARA: So Democrats have always thought that social media doesn't do enough to police misinformation while Republicans think that they go too far. So obviously Democrats are outraged by this decision. And, Niala, I also wanna acknowledge that some of the communications between the government and tech platforms continued and happened during the Trump administration, because they were also experiencing the similar types of public health and public safety and national security crises that you experience in a democratic administration. Again, things like election meddling, terrorism, et cetera. So Democrats largely think that the government and tech platforms should be working together. Do I think that they think there should be an inappropriate level of coordination? No. But I don't think they think it's existing the way that Republicans assume it is.

NIALA: So what effect might this be having right now on misinformation or disinformation around different political campaigns?

SARA: Tech platform executives that I've spoken to in the past 24 hours think that this could have a chilling effect on their ability to work with the government. Because when you think about things like election meddling and misinformation, those are issues that security departments, think about the FBI, think about the DHS, work in tandem and have for years with tech platforms to ensure that we're combating that in real time. And so ahead of the election if that relationship gets severed, that could be a big deal.

NIALA: Sara Fischer is Axios senior media reporter. Thanks Sara.

SARA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: And in some light political news… younger 2024 political candidates have been lately showing off their athletic abilities…

—Republican presidential candidate Vivek [[viv-ACHE]] Ramaswamy who’s 37, has incorporated tennis into his campaign schedule, hosting events like "Tennis with Vivek"

—A recent video of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. doing push-ups shirtless went viral. He’s 69 and running in the democratic primary.

— And a super PAC aligned with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, age 44 — mailed out baseball cards featuring DeSantis highlighting his stint in the Little League World Series.

Axios’ Sophia Cai writes that these candidates likely want to show voters they’re in better physical – and maybe mental – shape than front runners Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Biden is currently 80 years old, and Trump is 77.

In a moment, looking ahead to next week’s NATO summit.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today, I'm Niala Boodhoo. World leaders are gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania for NATO's annual summit next week. The meeting comes just after the war in Ukraine will hit its 500-day mark, but there's more on the docket too. Axios’ senior world reporter Dave Lawler is here with more. Hey, Dave.


NIALA: I mentioned Ukraine, which isn't yet a NATO member. How much will that be dominating the conversation?

DAVE: Yeah, so that is the big issue, Niala – how they navigate this question of Ukraine's future membership in NATO and also what they do in the interim while Ukraine is not a member of NATO. There are members of the alliance, particularly in Eastern Europe, countries like Poland, that want very strong guarantees for Ukraine that they will be in NATO.

Of course, there's the complicating factor that if you invite Ukraine into NATO now, you're basically signing up for war with Russia because there's the security guarantee: if a country comes under attack, the allies will defend it. The US has been one of the more reluctant countries in terms of the timeline of Ukraine getting into NATO. They want something that's more along the lines of, Ukraine is making progress towards membership, we'll continue to arm them as long as it takes, uh, but the US does not want a direct timeline for, okay, here's when and how Ukraine will get into NATO, because there's concern that if you say Ukraine gets in after the war, Russia has an extra incentive to keep the war going. So it's a very difficult issue for them to try to unpack next week.

NIALA: For months NATO hoped this summit would be an opportunity to welcome its newest member Sweden. Is that still looking likely?

DAVE: Sweden is not going to get in before the summit kicks off. They've basically run out of time, for both Hungary and Turkey, who are the holdouts here, to ratify Sweden's membership. There is hope that there might, may be some sort of announcement of an agreement at the summit, with Hungary and Turkey then taking action after the fact. But yeah, the hope that this would be a welcome party for Sweden does not look likely to come to pass next week.

NIALA: So Dave, what else are you gonna be watching for next week in Lithuania?

DAVE: While these leaders are gathering in Lithuania, Ukraine is going to continue to be pushing this counter offensive inside Russia. It's going a bit slower than some of the NATO countries had hoped. And Ukraine is saying, well, if you want us to move faster, we need more supplies and including cluster munitions, which are a particularly controversial form of armament, but one that Biden looks likely to approve. They're trying to continue to send signals that they're going to help Ukraine take back this territory, separate and apart from the idea of when Ukraine will get into NATO.

NIALA: That’s Axios’ Dave Lawler. Thanks, Dave.

DAVE: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: This past Monday and Tuesday marked new records for the Earth's hottest days according to NOAA data. And in Texas, the ongoing heatwave is still testing the electrical grid. But, some good news: renewables like solar and wind are generating big savings for customers and utilities in the state. Axios Austin's Asher Price is here with more. Asher, what are those savings looking like for folks in Texas?

ASHER PRICE: The big thing is that these energy bills are not gonna go through the roof. So, price for what's known as a megawatt hour of electricity is sort of bouncing between $30 and $50, even as air conditioners are humming relentlessly through this summer, and those energy prices aren't spiking into, you know, the thousand dollar range.

NIALA: Asher, you recently reported that the success of these renewables is actually in spite of little to no help from Governor Abbott. Why is that?

ASHER: I think Governor Abbott is closely aligned with oil interests in Texas, and the renewable energy industry has gotten big enough that they present a threat to oil and gas interests, as well as other fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Just two decades ago, renewable energy produced maybe a percent of electricity on the grid in Texas, and now last year it was about 26%.

So, you're seeing pushback from those interests, and Governor Abbott, in fact earlier this year, vowed to exclude renewable energy from some important incentive packages that Texas has, and, in fact, lawmakers followed his lead this legislative session.

NIALA: Asher Price is one of the authors of our Axios Austin newsletter. Thanks, Asher.

ASHER: Thank you.

NIALA: That’s it for us this week. Axios Today is produced by Fonda Mwangi, Lydia McMullen-Laird and Robin Linn, with senior sound engineer Alex Sugiura. Alexandra Botti is our supervising producer. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios’ Executive Editor. And Sara Kehaulani Goo is Axios’ editor in chief.

I’m Niala Boodhoo. Stay safe, enjoy your weekend and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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