Twitter plus China could equal pressure for Elon Musk

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer. On Monday April 25, Twitter accepted Musk’s $44 billion takeover offer

Elon Musk’s attempt to acquire Twitter for $44 billion has caused some concern among regular Twitter users, including a fear that right-wing trolls may see some of Musk’s remarks promoting unrestrained freedom of speech as an excuse to engage in harassment, and his promise to “authenticate all humans” as a sign that anonymity will no longer be allowed. But some believe the biggest challenge Musk will face if he is successful in acquiring Twitter could come from China, where his interest in protecting free speech could run headfirst into the Chinese government’s desire to control the information that gets distributed about the country. And China has a significant point of leverage over Musk in Tesla, his electric-car manufacturing company.

Tesla and Musk have benefited from some unique concessions in China. Tesla was the first foreign carmaker to own its auto-assembly plant outright (other carmakers were required to partner with local companies, who then owned a majority stake in the factories.) The funding for Tesla’s “Giga Shanghai” plant reportedly included $1.3 billion in loans from Chinese banks, and the plant is the company’s largest, producing almost half a million cars last year, almost half Tesla’s production. China accounted for $14 billion worth of the company’s revenue, a quarter of the total in 2021. Musk has responded by “lavishing praise” on the country in the past, according to the Journal, and has refrained from criticism—including remaining silent on the draconian measures China has taken to halt COVID, after calling milder US restrictions “fascist.”

Twitter under Musk “will need to confront China’s leverage,” the Wall Street Journal wrote. Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the Journal that China has a record of pressuring businesses to extract political concessions. “There will be lots of opportunities for Beijing to put the squeeze on Musk,” Ryan said. Nina Xiang, founder of the China Money Network, wrote that investors should “expect high drama” between Musk and China. “As the owner of Twitter, which is banned in China, Beijing may feel that it is able to pressure Musk to take down content that it does not like,” she wrote. “If Musk refuses, Beijing could start squeezing Tesla.”

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, raised this concern in a response to a tweet from Michael Smythe, a New York Times correspondent, about Tesla’s ties to China. “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?” Bezos asked. Later, he added: “My own answer to this question is probably not. The more likely outcome is complexity in China for Tesla.” An opinion piece at Bloomberg argued that Twitter “has a friendly face in charge of a global channel for information – and misinformation – that is central to Chinese authorities’ efforts to seed and amplify narratives favorable to the Communist Party.” The problem is exacerbated by the fact that investigative journalism in China is almost non-existent, as described by Helen Gao in the Times in 2018 and by Reporters Without Borders in a report last year.

Melissa Chan, a reporter with Vice, put Musk’s challenge in even more stark terms: “If Elon Musk thinks because he’s the world’s richest man that he can tell China to piss off if Beijing ever starts leaning on him about Twitter, he’ll find out how efficiently the Chinese state can gobble up that Tesla Shanghai factory,” Chan wrote. In an interview with CJR, Chan said Musk is already playing a somewhat risky game with Tesla, and adding Twitter to the mix “exposes him even further” to the whims of the Chinese government. “If he decides to prioritize his Tesla operations in China and compromise on a few issues regarding Twitter, then he faces problems back home,” she added. Chan also said what many businesses do is “they figure out pretty quickly what Beijing likes/does not like. And they end up self-censoring or preemptively avoiding things.” At a press briefing Tuesday, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said the government had no plans to pressure Musk or Twitter.

Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009, but the Chinese government has continued to make use of it as part of its external propaganda efforts, according to a number of China experts. In 2020, for example, researchers said the government stepped up its use of Twitter in an attempt to counter negative reporting on its internment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, and earlier this year used bot accounts to flood the network with positive tweets to drown out criticism of the Olympic Games. Over the past few years, Twitter has taken down hundreds of thousands of fake accounts it said were being run either by the Chinese government or its agents, and the company has also labeled the accounts of government officials and state-run media.

Some China observers believe that the desire to use Twitter for propaganda may override the government’s interest in censoring content. A “free speech absolutist” approach (which Musk has said is his preference) could play into the Chinese government’s hands, they say, making it easier to spread its propaganda messages. “I’d be stunned if Beijing doesn’t use its leverage over Tesla to pressure Musk. But I think it will be less about using Twitter to suppress negative voices on China, and much more about encouraging Musk to amplify positive voices,” Isaac Stone Fish, former Asia editor for Foreign Policy, told CJR. Others say China could pursue both avenues, but whichever one they choose to focus on, Tesla will continue to be a crucial point of leverage.

Here’s more on Twitter:

Disparaging: Under the terms of his agreement to acquire Twitter, Elon Musk is not allowed to post anything critical of the company, Bloomberg reported. Musk “isn’t allowed to post tweets about his deal to buy Twitter if they ‘disparage the company or any of its representatives,’ according to a new securities filing. However, a number of observers noted that Musk posted a tweet critical of both Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s lawyer, and the company itself, for blocking a New York Post report about a laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden, the president’s son. Musk called the decision “incredibly inappropriate.”

Right up: Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral science researcher, said she has been tracking the growth in Twitter followers of a number of right-wing and conservative users, using a service called Social Blade, and many have shown abnormally large increases since Musk announced his acquisition offer for Twitter. For example, she said, Matt Gaetz, a conservative congressman, gained more than 21,000 new followers on Monday, far more than his daily average of about 1,300; Donald Trump Jr. got more than 87,000 followers on Monday, Orr said, about 20 times his daily average of 4,500.

Consequences: Musk says he wants to ensure that Twitter remains a bastion of free speech, but that kind of approach could cause problems in a number of countries outside the US, Coda Story reports. “That just doesn’t work in a country like India,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a tech expert and founder of Medianama, an India-focused tech policy publication based in New Delhi. “We have real world consequences from the kind of speech that Twitter enables.” Pahwa said political operatives in India are adept at using the platform to “essentially fuel hate.”

Inappropriate: For the past year, Twitter has censored tweets about a documentary exploring the origins of the QAnon movement, according to Gizmodo. The documentary, Q: Into the Storm, was broadcast in March, 2021 as a six-part series on HBO Max. A Twitter spokesperson told Gizmodo the company decided to “limit the visibility” of the series on network because it violated Twitter’s policy on inappropriate content. “Twitter admitted that it was restricting the reach of tweets about the series after the director, Cullen Hoback, tried paying to boost his own tweet publicizing the film’s iTunes debut.” The documentary criticizes Twitter for the role it has played in the spread of QAnon.

Other notable stories:

According to an internal document obtained by Motherboard, engineers at Facebook admitted to a “fundamental” problem with the vast amounts of data it collects on its users and their behavior: it has no idea where all of its user data goes, or what it’s doing with it. “Imagine you hold a bottle of ink in your hand. This bottle of ink is a mixture of all kinds of user data. You pour that ink into a lake of water (our open data systems; our open culture) … and it flows … everywhere,” the document reads. “How do you put that ink back in the bottle? How do you organize it again, such that it only flows to the allowed places in the lake?”

The European Commission is proposing measures it hopes will protect journalists and others from frivolous or punitive lawsuits, the Guardian reports. “In the first proposal of its kind in Europe, the European Commission is targeting so-called ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’, or SLAPPS, where wealthy individuals and companies attempt to use the law to intimidate or silence investigative reporters and non-governmental organisations,” the Guardian said. Under the draft EU directive, journalists and nongovernmental organizations would be able to appeal to the courts to throw out “manifestly unfounded” cases.

Vogue writes about what female correspondents have brought to coverage of the war in Ukraine. “It is their in-depth, empathetic, almost impressionistic emphasis on civilian life—the upheavals, the sudden loss of normalcy, and the everyday ways people persist in the darkest of circumstances—that has been defining the coverage,” writes Michelle Ruiz for the magazine. “This reporting has made the war viscerally present in novel scenes: at funerals and defiantly optimistic weddings, in encounters with children lamenting the pet hamsters they were forced to leave behind.”

The New York Times has doubled the number of staff in its Opinion section to more than 150 people since 2017, according to a report by Axios, including the addition of new departments for audio and graphics, and more staff for the copy editing desk and fact-checking operation. The Times now has 35 people working on Opinion audio, up from one person at the beginning of 2020, said Kathleen Kingsbury, the paper’s Opinion editor. Kingsbury also said the resignation of former Opinion editor James Bennet, after he published an op-ed by Tom Cotton advocating an armed response to Black Lives Matter protests, “pushed the Times to further address diversity among its Opinion staff.”

A spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, told a Canadian government committee that Meta has “serious concerns” about an online news bill that is under consideration in Canada, the Toronto Star reports. The bill would force tech companies to compensate news outlets for reusing their work on social media platforms, much like a similar law in Australia. “Rachel Curran of Meta Canada told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that the company, which owns Facebook and Instagram, is going through the proposed law in detail and looking at options for a future response,” the Star wrote.

Jonathan Sposato, co-founder and chairman of GeekWire, has launched a new ad-supported multimedia platform aimed at an audience of American Asians called the JoySauce Network, according to a report from Variety. “The site, which went live Wednesday morning, boasts multiple channels of vibrant digital programming dedicated to celebrating both new and established American Asian talent,” Variety wrote. In addition to dramatic content and documentaries, Sposato said that his new site will also publish original editorial from some of the American Asian community’s most talented writers.

For CJR, Dalya Al Masri spoke with Dena Takruri, a San Francisco native and senior presenter at AJ+, the digital video arm of Al Jazeera, who hosts one of the network’s most popular series, called Direct From. “Al Jazeera was one of the first news organizations that recognized social media platforms are used for social interactions and can be used for news dissemination, but it had to be packaged in a way that fit the social media platforms,” Takruri said. “We were talking to a digitally native young audience in their language, on their terms. Also, AJ+ has a social justice approach to the news. It’s something we’re unapologetic about. Our social justice approach resonated with social movements.”

Rest Of World published an investigative feature looking at how authoritarian governments in Russia and elsewhere have cracked down on internet access. “Over the past five years, the government of Vladimir Putin has created a sophisticated infrastructure of internet control, built partly with commercially available tools, that has allowed the state to block social media, including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, inside Russia and to disrupt circumvention tools like VPNs, Tor, and the web proxy software Psiphon,” the site reported. “Russia is a pioneer in the use of these tools but not an outlier.”

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