Twitter is banned in China, but that doesn’t stop the Chinese government making good use of the app to promote propaganda.
And now that the social media platform is being bought by the world’s richest man, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the Chinese government might have gained some leverage over the future of the service.
Jeff Bezos—the world’s second richest man, behind Musk, and owner of the Washington Post plus SpaceX rival BlueOrigin—is apparently concerned about China’s ability to influence Twitter’s future owner, Elon Musk.
China is Tesla’s second largest sales market and a key engine for growth. Tesla’s Shanghai Gigafactory, opened in 2019, was the electric vehicle’s maker first production site outside of the U.S. The plant, which manufactures vehicles for both the Chinese and the European market—although the Berlin Gigafactory is now taking charge of Europe—is Tesla’s most productive factory.
The Chinese government rolled out the red carpet to get Tesla into Shanghai, providing subsidised loans and rents to get construction underway. Tesla was the first foreign car maker permitted to operate a wholly-owned factory in China after the government waived a rule that normally requires foreign automakers to partner with a domestic partner. But the government’s love affair with Tesla turned sour around April last year, after some car owners protested against the electric vehicle maker’s data privacy policies.
In early 2021, a Chinese Tesla owner demanded access to driver data Tesla kept on a collision the driver alleged involved a Tesla brake fail. Tesla refused to share the data—until state media lambasted the company for being “arrogant” and the government called Tesla’s China executives into a closed-door meeting to criticize them. Tesla changed its data privacy services thereafter.
In a follow up to his own Tweet, Bezos walked back the idea that Tesla’s exposure to China could lead to Musk implementing China-friendly censorship on Twitter.
But censorship isn’t really the issue here. With Musk soon to be in control, China stands to maybe benefit from a relative lack of censorship, instead.
In August 2020, Twitter began a policy of labelling accounts that are affiliated with state-owned entities. The move appeared to be a direct response to the Chinese government’s increased usage of the platform to promote its own narrative overseas.
Chinese state media used paid ads on Twitter to promote articles opposing the Hong Kong protests in 2019, prompting Twitter to ban state-affiliated media from purchasing ads. And Twitter has two blog posts explaining its decision to label state-media accounts, one of which includes a prefix that calls out China specifically.
“China blocks access to Twitter for regular users. We believe that people benefit from additional context when interacting with Chinese government and state-affiliated accounts,” the statement says.
If Twitter’s labelling policy was designed to limit the reach of China’s propaganda efforts, then it seemed to work. In 2021, research by China Media Project showed that tweets from Chinese state media suffered a 20% drop in user engagement after Twitter implemented its labelling policy.
If Musk, who has vowed to make Twitter a bastion of free speech, rolls back those policies, it could clear the way for China’s propaganda machine to rev back up.
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