Billionaire tech titans Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are seemingly training for a cage fight, but the duel is already playing out in the digital marketplace. Musk’s company Twitter took a hit in website traffic as its new competitor Threads surpassed records for online platform growth. Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta, formerly named Facebook, boasted that its new app had garnered 100 million users in just five days.
Musk initially proposed the cage match on June 20, in response to a tweet about Twitter’s upcoming rival, and Zuckerberg responded on Instagram, which Meta bought for $1 billion in 2012. After the launch of Threads, Twitter threatened Meta with legal action, calling the platform a “copycat” app. Musk and Zuckerberg have been dissing each other on their respective platforms ever since.
Twitter is the newest company in Musk’s arsenal, alongside his electric vehicle company Tesla and his spacecraft manufacturing company SpaceX. Musk acquired the online platform for $44 billion in October 2022. Since Zuckerberg’s launch of Threads, their beef has been extensively covered, but their political contributions and extensive lobbying have gotten less attention. The outspoken tech CEOs and their companies have each spent millions over the years trying to sway government policy, but Meta’s federal lobbying spending has outpaced that of Musk’s companies since 2011.
Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have personally donated at least $159,600 to federal candidates and committees. Meta’s PAC has received $100,000 from the couple since 2011.
Of the $41,200 Zuckerberg gave directly to candidates and party committees since the 2012 election cycle, 62% of it went to Democratic causes. Chan also prefers to donate to Democrats, making $21,000 in contributions to Democratic candidates and political committees since 2014. The couple each gave $5,000 to the PAC for the 2022 elections, their only reported contributions that cycle.
In 2021, Chan gave $750,000 to a group fighting California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall, her biggest political contribution to date. Zuckerberg’s largest-ever political contribution was $1 million given to a FWD.us California ballot measure committee before the 2016 election.
FWD.us is a Silicon Valley-backed nonprofit he co-founded that focuses on immigration and criminal justice reform. His donation was used to support a successful ballot measure that increased parole options for nonviolent felons.
Musk shelled out $725,750 in federal contributions from 2004 to 2020, giving an average of $80,639 per election cycle.
Of the $688,350 that went directly to federal candidates and party committees, 50.1% went to Republican causes, though his ex-wife Justine Musk donated 86% of her political contributions to Democratic causes from 2004 to 2008 while they were married.
The top recipient of Musk’s money is the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has received $246,800 from him since 2004.
Company PACs and interest groups
Combined contributions from Meta employees and the Meta PAC have skewed heavily toward Democratic causes since 2016, but the Meta PAC by itself leans conservative, giving slightly more to Republicans since 2012. Of the $289,900 the Meta PAC gave directly to candidates and committees during the 2022 election cycle, 53% went to Republicans. Like other tech companies after the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot, Meta – then called Facebook – paused its PAC’s political contributions to review its policies. It announced May 2021 the PAC would resume contributions but would not give any money to legislators who voted against certifying the 2020 election results.
Musk has donated $30,000 to SpaceX’s corporate PAC over the years. SpaceX’s PAC gave $659,000 to federal candidates for the 2022 election cycle, and 53% went to Democrats. Unlike other tech companies after Jan. 6, 2021, SpaceX did not pause its contributions or review its PAC’s giving policies. During the 2022 election cycle, $179,000 of his company’s PAC funds went to at least 40 different federal Republican lawmakers who objected to the 2020 election results.
Though Musk’s company PAC makes more contributions, Zuckerberg still had a powerful interest group at his disposal, FWD.us, where he was listed as a director on tax forms until June 2019. Musk was part of FWD.us until leaving in 2013, after FWD.us subsidiaries funded ad campaigns for prominent pro-Keystone Pipeline lawmakers.
Since spending $2.4 million in 2014, FWD.us has taken a step back from federal political contributions, preferring instead to dedicate its money to state elections. FWD.us has spent $2.8 million in state-level political contributions since 2016. That election cycle, it spent $1.7 million just in California and Oklahoma alone.
FWD.us also actively lobbies state governments, spending $4.5 million since it started doing so in 2017. It spent a record-breaking $1.6 million on federal lobbying in 2022 and racked up $400,000 in federal lobbying expenses just in the first three months of 2023 – its most active first quarter ever.
Zuckerberg’s company, Meta — which owns Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Threads and Oculus —- spends millions per year lobbying, mostly about internet and technology issues. Like other Big Tech companies, Meta has spent big money lobbying against industry regulations and has also funded “dark money” groups that support its policy agenda.
Meta has spent at least $1 million on federal lobbying per year since 2011, when it spent $1.35 million, and the company’s activity has since ballooned. With a combination of in-house lobbying and 23 different lobbying firms, Meta spent $4.6 million on federal lobbying in the first three months of 2023 after spending $19.2 million during 2022, less than the $20 million, record-breaking lobbying year the company had in 2021.
Meanwhile, Twitter, which Elon Musk took control of in late 2022, spent just $310,000 lobbying the federal government in the first three months of 2023, about the same it spent in 2022’s first quarter.
Musk’s electric vehicle company, Tesla, might be gearing up to drop big money lobbying the federal government this year, as it saw its most active first quarter ever, with $270,000 spent in the first three months of 2023 lobbying about tax and automotive industry issues across in-house lobbying and three different firms. It spent $770,000 in 2022.
SpaceX spent $690,000 so far in 2023, mostly lobbying about aerospace, defense and telecommunications issues. It spent $2.7 million lobbying the government in 2022, the most it ever has.
Musk’s other projects, Neuralink, which says it’s developed a brain-computer interface, and the Boring Company, which constructs tunnels, have reported no federal or state lobbying in the 19 states OpenSecrets tracks disclosures.
According to Good Jobs First’s Subsidy Tracker, since 2009, Tesla has received $2.8 billion in government subsidies. About 88% of those subsidies came from states, while the rest came from federal grants. The state of Nevada has given Tesla $1.6 billion across tax rebates and grants from 2013 to 2023. Texas gave SpaceX a $2.3 million grant in 2014, and California gave the company $716,750 for training reimbursements. Musk’s companies also frequently use federal loans, as Tesla has received $466.5 million and SpaceX has received $106.1 million since 2010.
Meta has received most of its $1.1 billion in government subsidies from states and municipalities, as only $274,477 came from federal grants. Its highest subsidy came from a Georgia municipality that gave the company $355 million in 2020, and its second-highest subsidy comes from the state of Nebraska, which gave the company $192 million in tax rebates in 2022.
State and local
Meta’s state-level lobbying is also extensive, totaling $11.7 million in expenditures since 2010 across the 19 states where OpenSecrets tracks lobbying activity.
Tesla outmatched this spending with a staggering $16.4 million spent on state-level lobbying since 2010, showing that Tesla prefers spending its lobbying money trying to influence state policy, especially regarding regulations on direct-to-consumer automobile sales. SpaceX has spent $3.5 million on state-level lobbying since 2012.
Meta, however, drops more money trying to influence state elections, as it made $4.5 million in state-level contributions since 2010, compared with Tesla’s $965,234 and SpaceX’s $47,950. Twitter typically stayed out of state elections, and it’s too soon to see yet if Musk’s reign will change this. It entered the state lobbying world in 2019 and has since spent $418,710.
Though the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — the couple’s philanthropic company — has never reported any lobbying, it gave $32.1 million total to ballot measure committees during the 2018 and 2020 state and local elections.
At least $12.7 million of those funds went to support California’s failed proposition 15 in 2020, which would have changed state tax laws to increase school funding.
The initiative also gave money for ballot measures focused on criminal justice, such as when the company gave $2 million in 2018 to an Ohio committee supporting a failed ballot measure that would have reduced punishments for drug use. In 2020, it gave $2.3 million to a committee opposing a failed California ballot measure that would have restricted parole for nonviolent drug users.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s employees and affiliates gave almost exclusively to Democrats for a combined $478,662 in federal contributions during those cycles, but only gave $26,923 in the 2022 federal election cycle.
If the still-unconfirmed fight doesn’t happen, it’s probably safe to expect more public feuding between the Meta founder and Twitter owner, or at the very least more posts about Zuckerberg’s training.
Individual Contributions Researcher Alex Baumgart contributed to this report.