Elon Musk’s grand vision for Twitter faces reality in India and China
Asia, home to more than half of the world’s population, is Twitter’s biggest growth opportunity and arguably a much tougher challenge. If billionaire Tesla Inc. and SpaceX keep their promises to abolish censorship, they will come up against a plethora of baffling regulations, wielded by sometimes authoritarian governments, taken to extremes by a horde of new Internet users.
The numbers alone suggest Musk’s biggest headaches lie overseas. Twitter’s monetizable daily active users numbered 179 million globally – eclipsing 38 million in the United States in 2021, according to its latest annual report.
As a public company, Twitter has repeatedly stressed that it must follow local regulations. Once it becomes a private enterprise controlled by the richest man in the world, Musk will take personal responsibility for navigating this thicket — and the fallout if he fails.
“Asia has the potential to make or break the new Twitter,” said JJ Rose, contributor to Australian nonpartisan think tank Lowy Institute. “It will depend on how he approaches it if he can exploit it for his free speech goals.”
Representatives for Twitter and Musk did not respond to requests for comment.
Twitter is officially banned in China, but the country will still demand a lot of attention from Musk. Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos hinted at the potential conflicts in a tweet shortly after Musk’s deal, asking “Did the Chinese government just gain some leverage over the place of the city?”
An obvious point is that China is extremely important to Tesla, Musk’s main source of wealth. The billionaire will certainly face pressure – implicit or explicit – to fine-tune Twitter’s policies to please Beijing.
As the world’s largest electric vehicle market and supplier of Tesla batteries, China is key to the healthy growth of the centerpiece of Musk’s business empire. Tesla also received significant tax breaks when it set up its Shanghai Gigafactory – its first overseas factory – and was allowed to own all of its operations locally, a rarity for an American company.
A pressing question is how Twitter is handling China’s efforts to spread propaganda globally on the platform. In 2020, the company instituted labels for government officials and “state-affiliated media” for publications like Xinhua and Global Times, and readers are reminded of this government support every time they like or retweet articles. Chinese media have described the practice as “intimidation”. and already started to pressure the billionaire to back down.
“One of the fiercest tests of Musk’s stated commitment to expanding free speech on Twitter will be whether he stands up to pressure from Beijing to whitewash criticism and challenges of China on the platform. -form,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of nonprofit advocacy group PEN America. “Whatever incremental changes he makes to the platform in the name of free speech, they risk being swallowed up under the weight of a heavy Chinese hand controlling what Musk has rightly dubbed a global public square.”
China Daily reporter Chen Weihua appealed directly to Musk with the argument that such labels suppress free speech and contradict Musk’s stated principles. The billionaire did not give a clear indication of how he would decide these matters.
“By ‘free speech,’ I just mean what’s within the law,” Musk wrote on Twitter. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.”
Robots are another matter. China has also used automated, anonymous accounts to spread government messages, prompting Twitter to remove more than 170,000 accounts in 2020 for “spreading pro-Communist geopolitical narratives.” Musk pledged to “defeat spambots or die trying!” and seems determined to continue cracking down on fake accounts.
Beijing has shown its willingness to punish billionaires who do not comply with its wishes. Regulators hammered the country’s tech giants and effectively banned Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. co-founder Jack Ma from public view.
Incentives are offered beyond the electric vehicle market. Musk’s SpaceX could certainly seek Chinese customers, while his Boring Co. could enjoy lucrative infrastructure contracts in the country.
And what about Twitter itself? A slice of the Chinese population uses virtual private networks to escape Beijing’s control and use the service. Could Beijing also offer access to its 1.4 billion inhabitants? Maybe under the right conditions. They would certainly not include freedom of expression.
India is another high-stakes market for Twitter: there are half a billion Internet users in the country and another half a billion logging on.
Twitter plays a role in India’s online discourse similar to that of the United States: the country’s political leaders use it to get their messages across, which are then relayed on television and news networks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an early adopter of the service and has 78 million subscribers, more than Twitter has registered users in the country.
But the government in New Delhi has insisted on far greater control than Washington has ever been able to exert. Tensions in the relationship grew during farmer protests around the country in 2020 and 2021 as Twitter and the government clashed over what kind of speech would be tolerated on the platform.
When groups of farmers demanded the repeal of some laws they said favored corporate-run farms, they took to the streets and social media to make their case, including Twitter. Modi’s administration insisted that the San Francisco-based company remove posts criticizing its actions – and Twitter initially refused to comply. Indian authorities then threatened to jail the company’s executives, prompting Twitter to permanently suspend more than 500 accounts and block access to hundreds more.
It was a direct example of how support for “free speech” can conflict with government edicts and legal compliance. Later in 2021, New Delhi tightened its grip on social media such as Twitter and Facebook: the government insisted that companies identify specific individuals as grievance officers, who will be responsible for handling official removal requests and who could face prison sentences for non-compliance. Twitter joined, albeit with some delay.
It’s unclear how Musk would reconcile his support for greater free speech with such tight government controls.
“Twitter should respect the laws of the country,” the future owner said in an interview.
The problem is not limited to India. Neighboring Sri Lanka restricted access to social media ahead of April protests, while Myanmar’s military junta last year shut down internet access altogether in its bid to suppress opposition. Researchers found Twitter to be the most blocked social media platform in the world with a total of 12,379 hours of outages in 2021.
South East Asia
Southeast Asia has become one of the fastest growing internet markets, fueled by countries like Indonesia and India connecting their vast populations.
Southeast Asia’s digital economy will reach $363 billion by 2025
But developing markets have their own problems. Meta Platforms Inc. cites the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia as major sources of fake and duplicate accounts. Meta, whose services Facebook and Instagram face similar challenges to Twitter, has for years reported in its annual reports that around 11% of its users worldwide are duplicate accounts and 5% are fake. As with China, Twitter will have its work cut out to eradicate synthetic users.
Freedom of expression also clashes with local laws in this region. Last year, Singapore passed a controversial “foreign interference” law granting it the power to demand information about social media users, in a bid to prevent foreigners from influencing domestic policy. Would this match Musk’s ambition of free expression?
Vietnam has posed similar challenges to online service providers like Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, with a cybersecurity law effectively forcing a choice between respecting user privacy and respecting local rules.
The question that will have to be answered over the next few years is how far Musk will keep his promises to free Twitter, not just in the United States, but in the rest of the world.
“Asia is not North America and it is not Europe,” said Rose of the Lowy Institute. “Musk has a globalist outlook and his business interests to date have tended to be quite universal. But something like media requires a more nuanced approach when applied globally.”
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