Elon Musk might have walked into a Twitter storm without even realizing it.
With his US$44-billion takeover of the highly-influential social media site, the richest businessman in the world now faces a new challenge. Only this time from China.
Twitter is banned in the world’s second-largest economy. But it is still infected by ruling Communist Party trolls, state-media propaganda and Beijing’s army of bots, despite a massive crackdown on “fake news.”
How will Musk, worth an estimated $270 billion, walk a tightrope between Tesla’s crucial car-manufacturing operation in Shanghai and anti-China government sentiment on Twitter?
President Xi Jinping’s administration has a track record of exerting pressure on companies and celebrities that fail to toe the Party line in China. Tesla and Musk will not be immune to such coercion if Twitter crosses what Beijing considers a perceived red line such as political debate or the Taiwan question.
“Although Musk has of late enjoyed trolling the likes of Saudi Arabia for their views on freedom of speech, given Tesla’s dependence on China for future growth it’s unlikely he’ll have the same eagerness to publicly take on the Chinese Communist Party,” Jordan Schneider, a senior analyst at Rhodium Group, said as reported by the Quartz media organization.
“How that reluctance extends to day-to-day moderation policy of state-owned media and state-backed botnets is anyone’s guess,” he added.
With a reported 86 million followers on his Twitter account, Musk has a giant presence. But as the ramifications of the deal started to sink in, he tweeted: “The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all.”
Later, he expanded on his views. “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter because that is what free speech means,” he said.
- The social media platform has an estimated 330 million monthly users worldwide.
- But the app is banned in China – blocked by the Great Firewall built by the ruling Communist Party.
- Still, it is the go-to site for movers and shakers across the globe.
- Included in that group are politicians, influential institutions and mainstream media.
- Non-governmental organizations or NGOs are also active.
Delve deeper: Musk has a highly-profitable business in China with his Tesla gigafactory in Shanghai and a highly-sensitive aerospace group in the California-based SpaceX.
What a coincidence: On the day that the Twitter deal was announced, China’s state-run Global Times tweeted: “#Tesla generated $4.65 billion in China in Q1, 2022, a year-on-year increase of 52.8%. China is now Tesla’s second-largest market, accounting for 24.8% of the company’s revenue.”
Hidden risks: “It seems likely that Twitter, under its new owner, will relax bans on political speech. Beijing will push Musk to ease up on its propaganda army too, but the pressure is unlikely to stop there,” Pete Sweeney wrote for Reuters news agency’s Breakingviews.
Tight squeeze: “Communist officials do not share Musk’s free speech values and they know how to squeeze,” Sweeney said.
Alternative view: “While Musk has called himself a ‘free speech absolutist,’ Chinese officials, media representatives and companies hope this stance of valuing freedom of speech could bring some changes to the social media platform, which has imposed some discriminatory measures on Chinese media outlets and diplomats,” Global Times reported.
China Factor comment: Musk might be wise to strap in tight after climbing into his Tesla as he could face a bumpy ride. “China,” as Quartz pointed out, “has a record of pressuring foreign businesses to tailor their public statements to its official views.” So, will Twitter be a tweet too far for the man with the Midas touch?