Elon Musk’s $44 billion bid to buy Twitter puts the world’s richest man in the crosshairs of censorship-prone governments like China and India, raising questions about how Tesla’s CEO might respond to threats. lawsuits to suppress dissent in the countries where it does business.
For Musk, with his various assets ranging from SpaceX to his flagship Tesla, controlling the levels of information that governments would like to suppress carries the risk of significant pushback for his brands.
With a quarter of its global sales in China, as well as about half of its production and a major battery factory in Tesla Giga Shanghai, the electric vehicle company is seen as likely to come under pressure from Beijing once Musk takes the lead. Twitter reins. .
Human rights activists fear the pressure could come in the form of demands to censor the activity of dissidents and activists on Twitter, hand over information on anonymous accounts, or remove the “state-affiliated media” label attached to Chinese media. .
“I think people are concerned mainly because Musk has Tesla business in China,” Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “So people are concerned that the government could take advantage of the business in China to try to silence or influence Twitter.”
Tesla’s ties to China have led to pushbacks in the past.
During the launch of the Tesla Model 3 in Hong Kong in mid-2019, at the height of China’s crackdown on anti-government protests in the city, Tesla drew criticism from activists who questioned the timing of the launch given the significant operations of China. company production in mainland China.
More recently, the company sparked outrage in January when it opened a showroom in China’s Xinjiang regionwhere rights groups estimate that more than a million ethnic minority Uyghurs are being held in so-called “re-education” camps.
“The China issue is a potential issue that needs to be addressed,” Dexter Thillien, senior analyst for technology and telecommunications at The Economist Intelligence Unit, told Al Jazeera.
Potential risks have some questioning whether the deal will be done before the October 24 deadline. Antitrust reviews in the United States could delay that acquisition even further. On Tuesday, Tesla’s stock was down 12 percent, or about $21 billion, in value, and any further decline could jeopardize the deal.
“Tesla is at risk of being caught in a geopolitical crossfire that could be very difficult to escape,” John Engle, chairman of investment group Almington Capital and an electric vehicle market analyst, told Al Jazeera. In any case, Tesla [and Musk’s] The massive public profile, both in China and in the US, could end up putting a target on the back of the company.”
Engle said the Biden administration’s tough stance on China could become even tougher if geopolitical tensions rise, leaving Tesla a political pawn in a larger game.
“Musk’s planned acquisition of Twitter could add to these tensions, especially if influencers in the US take the position that Musk’s ownership of the platform could expose it to undue influence from the Chinese government. “, said.
American companies ranging from the NBA and Hollywood studios to Apple have bowed to Chinese pressure over perceived slights numerous times in the past.
Last year, professional wrestler-turned-actor John Cena apologized in Mandarin for calling self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province, a country in 2019.
“If you look at the kind of concessions that Apple has made to appease the Chinese government, there are numerous incidents, but one example is that China has told Apple TV not to portray China in a negative light,” Wang said. “So this type of censorship goes beyond the borders of China.”
When companies have taken public stands against China, Beijing has responded, for example, by instigating boycotts against fashion retailers that removed Xinjiang-produced cotton from their supply chains over allegations of forced labor.
China’s Foreign Ministry earlier this week dismissed speculation that Beijing could use leverage over Tesla to influence content on Twitter as unfounded.
Tensions between Musk’s stated views on free speech, government regulations on social media, and the billionaire’s other business interests could also play out in India, which has the third-highest number of Twitter users in the world, after from the United States and Japan.
Although India’s 23.6 million accounts represent less than 2 per cent of the country’s population, the platform is highly influential due to its use by the urban elite, politicians, cultural icons, athletes and other celebrities. according to experts.
“In India, Twitter sets agendas and posts often create news,” Apar Gupta, executive director of New Delhi-based digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, told Al Jazeera. “It’s also popular with those who challenge the government, whether it’s about the environment or farmers’ concerns.”
That makes the platform a target of intense government scrutiny.
During historic protests against controversial farm reforms last yearPrime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration asked Twitter to suspend several accounts of critics.
The company initially followed the directive, but later reinstated some of the accounts after facing outrage from civil society. That sparked a months-long fight with the government, which has responded with new regulations requiring social media companies to share private saves between users with officials and a crackdown on content that New Delhi identifies as “illegal.”
Musk has said that his definition of free speech includes any expression that “consistent with the law.” But in India, “the government can now legally require Twitter to remove specific accounts,” Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, told Al Jazeera. “What do you do then?”
The founder of Tesla and SpaceX has been eyeing the giant Indian market for some time, but has so far been frustrated by high fees that would make his company’s electric cars too expensive for most Indians.
Starlink, Musk’s satellite internet firm, is still awaiting a business license to operate in India. But earlier this week, the country’s transportation minister, Nitin Gadkari, courted the world’s richest man and asked Musk to build Tesla cars in India. That would represent “good earnings” for Musk and “good economy” for India, he said.
At the same time, some activists fear that Tesla’s expansion in India would give New Delhi an advantage over Musk the next time he wants to target his opponents.
“Anything that allows the government to dictate conditions to Twitter and other social media platforms is bad for citizen movements,” Darshan Pal, leader of last year’s farmers’ protests, told Al Jazeera. “Social media is how we incorporate our demands. Take that away, and it’s much harder.”
Musk’s goal of Twitter’s safeguards against disinformation and hate speech are also a concern, according to Pahwa, especially in India, where both problems are seen as rife.
“Twitter has made some significant progress of late in cleaning up the platform,” he said. “His criticism of those efforts is not big news.”
Musk has twice criticized Twitter’s top lawyer, India-born Vijaya Gadde, who is credited with implementing policies for content moderation, in recent posts.
In practice, allowing freedom of expression on a platform like Twitter means establishing rules that allow communication without fear of harassment and threats in response, Pahwa said. “If you scare people away, you’re not going to get free speech, that’s something Musk needs to realize.”
Al Jazeera has contacted India’s IT Ministry and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.
Musk has shown a willingness to publicly criticize governments, targeting the state of California for COVID restrictions that affected production at Tesla and Saudi Arabia for its involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
By contrast, he has had little to say about Chinese authoritarianism.
“Concerns for Chinese activists are particularly important,” Wang said. “For example, the Saudi government’s ability to try to influence Twitter is on a very different level compared to the Chinese government’s ability.”
Another risk Tesla faces in China is the possibility that Beijing could curtail its market share in favor of its own “domestic champions” like BYD, Nio and Xpeng, as it has done in the past when other foreign companies outshone their rivals. national peers.
“The Twitter acquisition could have given China firmer control over Elon Musk and his car manufacturing company, Tesla,” Baruch Labunski, founder of marketing firm Rank Source, told Al Jazeera.
“China is well known for pressuring foreign companies to live up to their narratives,” he said. “It is also unlikely that Musk will publicly confront China as he did with Saudi Arabia due to the importance of the Chinese market for Tesla.”
Musk’s public comments indicate that his plans for the social media site include introducing an edit button, relaxing content moderation rules and allowing longer posts.
Other potential changes would target disinformation and spam bots by requiring some form of user authentication, although rights advocates fear this could harm users in China and other restrictive environments that use anonymity to protect them from threats. government retaliation.
“Authentication features may root out some bots, but they won’t root out the large number of Chinese government officials and employees who use Twitter to engage in Chinese state and Xi Jinping propaganda,” said Renee Xia, director of the People’s Network. Chinese Humans. Rights defenders, she told Al Jazeera.
“I haven’t seen anyone encouraging this development,” Xia said. “Like Microsoft or Apple or anyone else doing business in China, Musk is no different and is not likely to defend free speech by sacrificing his lucrative effort in China.”