As Musk eyes Twitter, China and India dissidents fear censorship

Elon Musk’s $44bn bid to buy Twitter puts the world’s richest man in the crosshairs of censorship-prone governments such as China and India, raising questions about how the Tesla CEO might respond to demands to stifle dissent in countries where he does business.

For Musk, with his diverse assets ranging from SpaceX to his signature company Tesla, controlling the levels of information that governments would like suppressed carries the risk of significant blowback for his brands.

With one-quarter of its global sales in China, as well as about half of its production and a major battery factory at Tesla Giga Shanghai, the electric vehicle company is seen as likely to come under pressure from Beijing once Musk takes the reins at Twitter.

Human rights activists fear that pressure could come in the form of demands to censor activity by dissidents and activists on Twitter, hand over information about anonymous accounts, or remove the “state-affiliated media” tag attached to Chinese media.

“I think people are worried mostly because Musk has Tesla business in China,” Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “So people worry that the government can leverage the business in China to try to silence, or influence Twitter.”

Tesla’s ties with China have resulted in blowback in the past.

During the Tesla Model 3’s rollout in Hong Kong in mid-2019 at the height of China’s suppression of anti-government protests in the city, Tesla attracted criticism from activists who questioned the timing of the launch given the firm’s significant production operations in mainland China.

More recently, the company sparked outrage in January when it opened a showroom in China’s Xinjiang region, where rights groups estimate more than one million ethnic minority Uighurs are being detained in so-called “re-education” camps.

Tesla has faced blowback from rights campaigners over its business dealings in China [File: David Zalubowski/AP]

“The China question is a potential issue which needs to be raised,” Dexter Thillien, lead technology and telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, told Al Jazeera.

The potential risks have some questioning whether the deal will go through by the October 24 deadline. Antitrust reviews in the United States could delay that takeover even longer. On Tuesday, Tesla’s share value declined 12 percent, or approximately $21bn, and any further slides could put the deal in jeopardy.

“Tesla risks being caught in the middle of a geopolitical crossfire that could be very hard to escape,” John Engle, president at investment group Almington Capital and an analyst of the EV market, told Al Jazeera. “If anything, Tesla’s [and Musk’s] massive public profile — in both China and the US — could end up putting a target on the company’s back.”

Engle said the Biden administration’s firm stance on China could become tougher still if geopolitical tensions rise, leaving Tesla as a political pawn in a larger game.

“Musk’s planned acquisition of Twitter could add to these tensions, especially if influencers in the US adopt the position that Musk’s ownership of the platform could expose it to undue influence from China’s government,” he said.

US companies ranging from the NBA and Hollywood studios to Apple have bowed to Chinese pressure over perceived slights on numerous occasions in the past.

Last year, professional wrestler-turned-actor John Cena apologised in Mandarin for calling self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province, a country in 2019.

“If you look at the kinds of concessions that Apple has made in order to appease the Chinese government, there’s numerous incidents, but one example is that China has told Apple TV not to portray China in a negative light,” Wang said. “So this kind of censorship goes beyond China’s borders.”

When firms have taken public stands against China, Beijing has hit back, such as by instigating boycotts against fashion retailers that removed Xinjiang-produced cotton from their supply chains over allegations of forced labour.

China’s foreign ministry earlier this week dismissed speculation that Beijing could use leverage over Tesla to influence content on Twitter as baseless.

The tensions between Musk’s stated views on free speech, government regulations over social media, and the billionaire’s other business interests could also play out in India, which has the world’s third-highest number of Twitter users, after the US and Japan.

Though India’s 23.6 million accounts amount to less than 2 percent of the country’s population, the platform has outsized influence due to its use by the urban elite, politicians, cultural icons, sportspersons and other celebrities, according to experts.

“In India, Twitter sets agendas and posts often create news,” Apar Gupta, executive director of the New Delhi-based digital rights advocacy group, Internet Freedom Foundation, told Al Jazeera. “It’s also popular among those who challenge the government, whether it’s on the environment or concerns of farmers.”

That makes the platform a target of intense government scrutiny.

During historic protests against controversial farm reforms last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration asked Twitter to suspend multiple accounts of critics.

The company initially followed the directive but then restored some of the accounts after facing civil society outrage. That set up a months-long tussle with the government, which responded with new regulations that require social media companies to share private conservations between users with officials and a crackdown on content that New Delhi identifies as “unlawful”.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks
India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration asked Twitter to suspend multiple accounts of critics during last year’s protests against controversial farm reform laws [File: Prakash Singh/AFP]

Musk has said his definition of free speech includes any expression that “matches the law”. But in India, “the government can now lawfully require Twitter to pull down specific accounts,” Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, told Al Jazeera. “What do you do then?”

The Tesla and SpaceX founder has been eyeing the giant Indian market for some time but has so far been frustrated by high tariffs that would make his company’s electric cars too expensive for most Indians.

Starlink, Musk’s satellite internet firm, is still waiting for a commercial licence to operate in India. But earlier this week, the country’s transport minister, Nitin Gadkari, wooed the world’s richest man, asking Musk to manufacture Tesla cars in India. That would represent “good profits” for Musk and “good economics” for India, he said.

At the same time, some activists fear that Tesla’s expansion into India would give New Delhi leverage over Musk the next time it wants to target its opponents.

“Anything that allows the government to dictate terms to Twitter and other social media platforms is bad for citizens’ movements,” Darshan Pal, a leader of last year’s farmers’ protests, told Al Jazeera. “Social media is how we mainstream our demands. Take that away, and it’s much harder.”

Musk’s targeting of Twitter’s guardrails against misinformation and hate speech are also a concern, according to Pahwa — especially in India, where both problems are considered rife.

“Twitter has made some serious progress in recent times in cleaning up the platform,” he said. “His criticism of those efforts isn’t great news.”

Musk has twice criticised Twitter’s top lawyer, India-born Vijaya Gadde — who is credited with putting in place policies for content moderation — in recent posts.

In practice, enabling free speech on a platform like Twitter means laying down rules that allow communication without the 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 must realise.”

Al Jazeera has contacted India’s IT ministry and China’s foreign ministry for comment.

INTERACTIVE- What has Elon Musk said on Twitter 2010 - 2021
(Al Jazeera)

Musk has demonstrated a willingness to publicly criticise governments, taking aim at the state of California over COVID restrictions that impacted production at Tesla and Saudi Arabia over its involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In contrast, he has had little to say about Chinese authoritarianism.

“The concerns for Chinese activists are particularly salient,” Wang said. “For example, the ability of the Saudi government to try to influence Twitter is at a very different level compared to the ability of the Chinese government.”

Another risk facing Tesla in China is the possibility Beijing could restrict its market share in favour of its own “national champions,” such as BYD, Nio and Xpeng, as it has in the past when other foreign companies outshined domestic peers.

“The takeover of Twitter might just have given China a firmer hold over Elon Musk and his car making company, Tesla,” Baruch Labunski, founder of marketing firm Rank Source, told Al Jazeera.

“China is well known for pressuring foreign businesses to comply with its narratives,” he said. “It’s also unlikely that Mr Musk will publicly take on China as he did Saudi Arabia due to the importance of the Chinese market to Tesla.”

Musk’s public comments indicate his plans for the social networking site include the introduction of an edit button, loosening content moderation rules, and allowing longer posts.

Other potential changes would target disinformation and spambots by requiring some kind of authentication of users, though rights campaigners fear this could harm users in China and other restrictive environments using anonymity to protect them from government reprisals.

“The authentication features may root out some bots but won’t root out the large body of Chinese government officials and employees using Twitter to engage in propaganda for the Chinese state and for Xi Jinping,” Renee Xia, director of the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told Al Jazeera.

“I haven’t seen anybody cheering this development,” Xia said. “Like Microsoft or Apple or any others that do business in China, Musk is not different and won’t be likely to champion free speech by sacrificing his profit-making endeavour in China.”

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