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

Tesla founder Elon Musk’s $ 44 billion bid to buy Twitter has sparked a wave of concern that Tesla’s rapid expansion into China will make Twitter TWTR.
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 Chinese-made cars in 2019 after opening its first factory there the previous year.

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

It didn’t take long critics for raising red flags about the possible sale on Twitter. Even some of Musk’s own colleagues, Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, initially expressed concern.

Bezos was, in fact, one of the first people to express his displeasure with the offer. In response to a journalist’s tweet about a ban on Tesla’s trade relationship with China and Twitter, Bezos wrote: “Interesting question. Has the Chinese government just gained some leverage over the city square?

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

The Chinese government has blocked the use of Twitter by its residents, along with Facebook and Instagram

google google,
and even Wikipedia, in mainland China since 2009.

In response to speculation that China would try to interfere with Twitter under Musk’s leadership, China’s foreign ministry issued a denial on Tuesday, saying such speculation was unfounded.

Twitter policy on state affiliate accounts

In light of recent events, however, Chinese scholars and observers point out that the government has not lost hope that the platform can offer a way to polish its own international image.

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

With the goal of increasing transparency and reducing propaganda – and misinformation and fake news – Twitter marks the accounts belonging to Chinese government officials and Chinese-affiliated media, an approach applied to the media. communication that the platform considers to have no editorial independence.

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

“State-affiliated media are defined as the means by which the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and / or control over production and distribution.” Twitter policy he says.

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

(Twitter declined to comment on this article.)

Still, observers wondered whether Musk’s long-standing ties to the Chinese government would be a threat to the integrity of the social media platform, including whether the company would remove state-affiliated media labels or, in the worst case, , would even eliminate the negatives related to China. content or accounts.

In 2020, Twitter deleted about 23,000 accounts that it said were linked to the Chinese Communist Party. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Twitter also labeled RT and Sputnik tweets as state media affiliated with Russia.

Mutually beneficial relationship

China has long been a major market for Tesla and Elon Musk.

It is, of course, a mutually beneficial relationship, despite tensions last year over national security concerns and US-China trade tariffs.

Obviously, having the power to remove Twitter content would be an attractive, albeit 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 this is very unlikely since Tesla and China depend on each other. Tesla has invested billions of dollars in Chinese manufacturing and China supplies parts to Tesla, including graphite for its car batteries.

“They wouldn’t use it as a currency unless they have to,” Fang wrote in an online newsletter this week.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg once flirted with China in the hope that the country would open its borders to Facebook, before criticizing the country’s strict regulation of Internet access.

Will Elon Musk try to end what Zuckerberg did not do and woo Chinese officials in the hope that China will allow even a censored version of Twitter?

If he did, Musk would have a hard time convincing Chinese officials that his “free speech” mantra could benefit them, observers say.

While the Chinese government is cracking down on social media at home (suppressing controversial posts and restricting accounts to its internal Twitter counterpart, Weibo), observers noted that China would be baffled when it comes to opening its Internet to Twitter. .

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

A complex path ahead

For his part, Bezos has since clarified his initial response to Musk’s Twitter bid: Instead of giving in to Twitter under pressure from Beijing, he is more likely to create complications for Tesla’s business in China. , he said.

On the issue of censorship of Chinese influence on Twitter, Bezos wrote (on Twitter): “My own answer to this question is probably not. The most likely outcome in this regard is the complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship on Twitter.”

“But we’ll see,” he added. “Musk is very good at navigating this kind of complexity.”

Doing business in China is a way to gain access to the state’s political class, and there will be plenty of opportunities for Beijing to put pressure on Musk, said Australian Fergus Institute of Strategic Policy senior analyst Ryan to 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, a professor of Chinese Business and Technology at Duke’s, told MarketWatch Fuqua School of Business.

Both sides are largely satisfied with their existing trade deal in the electric car space, he added.

Another scenario, perhaps extreme: what if China believed that Twitter accounts or speech was a threat to national security? It is “conceivable” that the Chinese government could express its displeasure and take some kind of action designed to put pressure on Musk, Simon said.

But, he added, that’s a big “yes.”

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

Related: With Elon Musk’s Twitter offer, there’s more at stake than free speech: “It gives you a lot more influence over governments.”

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