Musk’s Ties to China Could Create Headaches for Twitter

SAN FRANCISCO – When Elon Musk opened the Tesla factory in Shanghai in 2019, the Chinese government welcomed him with billions of dollars in cheap land, loans, tax breaks and subsidies. “I really think China is the future,” he said. Kasturi was happy.

Since then, Tesla’s path has been lucrative, with a quarter of the company’s revenue coming from China in 2021, but not without problems. The company faced consumer and regulatory upheavals in China last year over manufacturing shortcomings.

With his deal to take over Twitter, Mr. Musk’s relations with China are set to become strained.

Like all foreign investors in China, it operates Tesla to the delight of the Chinese authorities, who have expressed a desire to influence or punish companies that cross political red lines. Apple, the world’s most valuable company, has also accepted Chinese demands, including censoring its App Store.

Mr. Musk’s widespread investment in China could be jeopardized if Twitter upset the state of the Communist Party, which has banned the platform at home but has widely used it to push Beijing’s foreign policy around the world – often with false or misleading information.

At the same time, China now has a sympathetic investor taking control of one of the world’s most influential megaphones. Mr. Musk did not say anything publicly, for example, when authorities in Shanghai shut down Tesla’s plant as part of a recent citywide effort to crack the Covid-19, even after officials in Alameda County, California, lumbered, when similar measures were taken in 2020 when the epidemic began. .

Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama, said: “How will he, now the owner of this company, handle it because all of his investments are tied up there, or most of them?”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Mr. Musk’s biggest rivals in tech, space and now the media, are weighing in on Twitter – questioning China’s potential influence on the platform. “Has the Chinese government made a small profit on Town Square?” Mr. Bezos wrote.

Mr. Musk did not elaborate on his plans to change Twitter, except to promise to release it as a platform for free speech, while banning its user-supported bots and artificial accounts. Even that simple pledge on bots could anger Chinese propagandists who have openly bought fake accounts and used them to reduce claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. It is unclear whether he wants to restore accounts or remove labels that identify some of Beijing’s leading users as state officials.

Mr. Musk did not respond to an email requesting comment. A Twitter spokesman declined to comment.

Clearly, China recognizes Twitter’s ability to spread information. Twitter was banned by the government in 2009 amid ethnic riots between Muslims and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the capital of the western region where the government later launched a mass detention and re-education campaign which was declared genocide by the United States.

Despite the sanctions, China has stepped up its efforts to use the platform to increase its dominance abroad. The measures intensified in 2019 when images of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong spread on the global internet. China’s state media has repeatedly backtracked with tricks reserved for its domestic audience, accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of organizing protests and repeatedly broadcasting covert videos of anti-government violence, ignoring police brutality against the mob.

The growing chorus of Chinese diplomats, fresh on many Twitter accounts, began to echo the harsh tone of the state media, demeaning critics and explicitly attacking countries that offer incentives. Described as the “Wolf Warriors” after the popular nationalist movie, these officers were backed by a vague set of accounts like Bot. By the end of 2019, Twitter had identified and deleted several accounts. Follow Facebook and YouTube with their respective refinements.

Undoubtedly, when the coronavirus epidemic broke out, the Chinese government redoubled its efforts. Many diplomats and state media representatives used Twitter to spread conspiracy theories, arguing that the coronavirus had been released from a U.S. bioweapons laboratory and questioning the safety of the mRNA vaccine.

Since then, dishonest networks of posting bots, along with diplomats and state media, have spread videos disputing human rights violations in Xinjiang; Underestimating the disappearance of Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a top Chinese official of sexual assault; And the success of the Winter Olympics in Beijing this year is encouraging.

Through all of this, Twitter has published reports on networks, often with the help of cyber security experts, who have linked them to the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. The company was one of the first to label government-backed accounts, and recently linked state media to “China State Affiliates”.

Despite his knowledge of Chinese technologies, Twitter has found it difficult to stop the country’s information campaign, said Darren Linville, a professor at Clemson University who studies social media disinformation.

“It does not matter if one personal account or thousands of accounts are suspended,” he said in a written response. “They make more at a surprising rate, and by the time the account is suspended (which often happens very quickly) the account has already done its job.”

“There is a lot of misinformation, like what Russia has done, about creating or expanding descriptions. A lot of Chinese misinformation is about suppressing them, “he added.

As the new owner of Twitter, Mr. Musk could also face pressure from China on other issues. This includes not only demands of the authorities to censor information online outside of China’s Great Firewall – for example, a description of Taiwan except in the Chinese province – but also the arrest of Twitter users in China.

In China, Mr. Musk’s takeover has raised fears that officials will have more leverage to censor his critics, some of whom use technology to get around the Twitter ban.

Murong Zukyun, a well-known author, was questioned by police for four hours in 2019 for two tweets he posted three years ago. A nude ball featured a clearly photoshopped image of China’s top leader, the naked Xi Jinping. The second was a cartoon depicting Mr. Xi is breaking Santa’s cold deer from the sky.

“I think the Chinese government would be happy to buy Twitter,” he said. Murong said, “And in the coming days, the government will use its business in China to force it to control Twitter and help censor critics of the Communist Party and the Chinese government.”

Privately, he said, he and his friends call the harassment of Twitter users in China a “complete Twitter cleanup.” Mr. Murong estimates that police have questioned thousands if not thousands of people about his post in recent years. The disciplinary campaign and the growing number of Chinese officials on Twitter show that the government is deeply concerned about what is being said on foreign social media, he said, describing the officials’ efforts abroad as an attempt to “wage public opinion and ideological wars”.

“This government has done many similar things and will not stop in the future,” he said. “I don’t know how Musk will cope with this pressure, but given its attitude towards China, I think it could be a big Chinese censorship machine.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman A Wang Wenbin took to Twitter on Tuesday to discuss the issue. Musk’s investment in the country. “I can say that you are very good at guessing, but without any basis,” he answered one question.

But Mr. Bezos corrected his post on Twitter about China’s potential benefits, suggesting that Mr. Musk can deftly maintain balance. “Musk is very good at navigating this kind of complexity,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, a possible consequence of Shri. Musk’s takeover will be less transparent. As a publicly traded company, Twitter saw pressure from shareholders when concerns over disinformation, account restrictions and rule enforcement affected its share price. It, in turn, forces the platform to explain its policies to counter information campaigns, similar to those arising in China. With Mr. Musk plans to privatize the company, with little privilege to answer such inquiries.

“Even if I just take it to what he says – his idea of ​​Twitter as an ambitious tool to help drive more democratic, pro-democracy reforms here and abroad – he has basically built a back door for China to come in and manipulate. . He spoke in support of the US Alliance, but said that maintaining some independence was not the answer.

Steven Lee Myers from San Francisco and Paul Mozur from Seoul. Claire Fu Contributed to research.

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