Social media

Could China influence Twitter if Musk succeeds in buying the social media platform? It wouldn’t be easy. Here’s why.

Tesla founder Elon Musk’s $44 billion bid to buy Twitter has sparked widespread concern that Tesla rapid expansion in China will make Twitter TWTR,
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more vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese government.

China is, after all, Tesla’s second-largest sales market after the United States – accounting for nearly a quarter of total revenue – and is key to the electric vehicle maker’s growth strategy. Tesla delivered its first cars made in China in 2019 after opening its first factory there the previous year.

Musk’s offer was accepted by Twitter’s board on Monday, a move that surprised many analysts. Shareholders have yet to vote on Musk’s offer, and the deal is also subject to regulatory approval.

It didn’t take long to criticism for raising red flags about the potential sale on Twitter. Even some of Musk’s own peers — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founding billionaire — initially expressed concern.

Bezos was actually one of the first people to express his unease with the offer. Responding to a reporter’s tweet about Tesla’s business dealings with China and the Twitter ban there, Bezos wrote, “Interesting question. Has the Chinese government just gained some influence in the city square? »

(Tesla TSLA,
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did not respond to a request for comment.)

The Chinese government has banned its people from using Twitter – as well as Facebook, Instagram

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GoogleGOOG,
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and even Wikipedia — in mainland China since 2009.

Responding to speculation that China is seeking to interfere with Twitter under Musk’s leadership, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a denial on Tuesday, saying the speculation was baseless.

Twitter’s policy on state-affiliated accounts

In light of recent events, however, scholars and China watchers point out that the government has not given up hope that the platform could provide a means to restore its own international image.

Over the years, they say, state-affiliated accounts appearing on Twitter in territories outside of China, including those run by government spokespersons and government officials, promote Chinese culture and praise the government’s policies, especially in times of tension with the West.

In an effort to increase transparency and reduce propaganda — as well as misinformation and fake news — Twitter flags accounts belonging to Chinese government officials and Chinese state-affiliated media, an approach applied to media that the platform considers as lacking editorial independence.

Twitter does not refer to public broadcasters such as the BBC in the UK and NPR in the US as “state-affiliated” because they enjoy editorial independence.

“State-affiliated media is defined as media where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressure and/or control over production and distribution “, Twitter policy said.

Twitter is in a constant battle to reduce fake news and propaganda from foreign governments on the site, including from China.

(Twitter declined to comment for this article.)

Yet observers have wondered whether Musk’s longstanding ties to the Chinese government would be a threat to the integrity of the social media platform, including whether the company would take down state-affiliated media labels or – in the worst case cases – even would remove negative China-related content or accounts.

In 2020, Twitter deleted about 23,000 accounts he said they were related to the Chinese Communist Party. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Twitter also tweets tagged by RT and Sputnik as Russian-affiliated state media.

Mutually beneficial relationship

China has long been an important market for Tesla and Elon Musk.

This is of course a mutually beneficial relationship, despite last year’s tensions related to national security concerns and US-China Trade Tariffs.

Having the power to remove content from Twitter would obviously be an attractive, if crude, way for the Chinese government to control its own narrative.

However, Kecheng Fang, a media scholar and assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that was highly unlikely given that Tesla and China depend on each other. Tesla has invested billions of dollars in Chinese manufacturing, and China supplies Tesla with parts, including graphite for its car batteries.

“They wouldn’t use it as a bargaining chip unless they had to,” Fang wrote in an online bulletin this week.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg once flirted with china hoping the country will open its borders to Facebook, before criticizing the country’s strict regulations on internet access.

Will Elon Musk try to finish what Zuckerberg failed to do – and woo Chinese officials in the hope that China will even allow a censored version of Twitter?

If he did, Musk would struggle to convince Chinese officials that his “freedom of speech” mantra could benefit them, observers say.

As the Chinese government cracks down on social media at home — deleting controversial posts and restricting accounts on its domestic Twitter equivalent, Weibo — observers have noted that China would be reluctant to open its internet to Twitter.

Additionally, Twitter serves 217 million daily active users worldwide and, as the rise of TikTok has shown, social media users can be fickle. They often change allegiance. Millions of people would almost certainly express their outrage if they noticed even subtle changes in Twitter’s editorial policy toward China.

A complex path to travel

For his part, Bezos has since clarified his initial response to Musk’s offer on Twitter: Instead of Twitter bowing to pressure from Beijing, it’s more likely to create complications for Tesla’s business in China, he said. -he declares.

On the issue of Chinese-influenced censorship on Twitter, Bezos wrote: (on Twitter): “My own answer to that question is probably no. The more likely outcome in this regard is complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship on Twitter.

“But we will see,” he added. “Musk is extremely good at navigating this kind of complexity.”

Doing business in China is a way to access the political class of the state, and Beijing will have plenty of opportunities to put pressure on Musk, as senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Fergus Ryan told the Wall Street Journal.

Using Musk’s electric car business as leverage to gain more influence on Twitter is unlikely to be an immediate priority for China, Denis Simon, professor of Chinese business and technology at Duke’s Fuqua School of Science, told MarketWatch. Business.

Both parties are – for the most part – happy with their existing commercial arrangement in the field of electric cars, he added.

Another, possibly extreme, scenario: What if China believes that the Twitter accounts or speech pose a threat to national security? It’s “conceivable” that the Chinese government could express its displeasure and take some kind of action to put pressure on Musk, Simon said.

But, he added, that’s a big “if.”

Musk faces more pressing short-term issues if he succeeds in making Twitter private, Simon added.: “I think he’s going to have a big problem trying to figure out what he really means in terms of free speech.”

Related: With Elon Musk’s Twitter bid, there’s more at stake than free speech: ‘It gives him a lot more influence over governments’