Elon Musk’s Twitter goal meets the reality check in India, China

Elon Musk’s Twitter goal meets the reality check in India, China

Asia is Twitter’s biggest growth opportunity and without a doubt a far more difficult challenge. (File)

Despite all the furore about which way Elon Musk can tip US political discourse after getting the keys to Twitter Inc., his biggest challenges may emerge across the Pacific.

Asia, home to more than half of the world̵[ads1]7;s population, is Twitter’s biggest growth opportunity and without a doubt a far more difficult challenge. If Tesla Inc. and the SpaceX billionaire keep their promises to shelve censorship, he will face a host of confusing regulations, carried out by sometimes authoritarian governments, pushed to the limits of a horde of first-time Internet users.

The figures alone indicate that Musk’s biggest headache is abroad. Twitter’s daily active users who can make money amounted to 179 million internationally – a dwarfing of 38 million in the US in 2021, according to the latest annual report.

As a public company, Twitter has repeatedly emphasized that it must follow local regulations. Once there is a private concern controlled by the world’s richest man, Musk will personally take responsibility for navigating the thicket – and the fallout if he fails.

“Asia has the potential to create or break the new Twitter,” said JJ Rose, a contributor to Australia’s party political think tank Lowy Institute. “It will depend on how he approaches it, whether he can exploit it for his freedom of speech goals.”

Representatives of 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 Musk’s attention. Inc. founder Jeff Bezos alluded to the potential conflicts in a tweet shortly after Musk’s deal, asking “Did the Chinese government just have some influence over the square?”

An obvious point is that China is hugely important to Tesla, the key source of Musk’s wealth. The billionaire will certainly face pressure – implicitly or explicitly – to fine-tune Twitter’s policies to satisfy Beijing.

As the world’s largest market for electric vehicles, as well as a supplier of Tesla batteries, China is crucial to the healthy growth of the center of Musk’s business empire. Tesla has also benefited from significant tax breaks by setting up the Shanghai Gigafactory – its first foreign facility – and being allowed to own its local businesses, which is a rarity for a US company.

An urgent question is how Twitter handles China’s efforts to spread propaganda globally on the platform. In 2020, the company introduced government labels and “state-affiliated media” for publications such as Xinhua and the Global Times, and readers are reminded of this state support whenever they like or retweet stories. Chinese media have called the practice a “scare” and have already begun lobbying the billionaire to roll it back.

“One of the toughest tests of Musk’s stated commitment to expanding free speech on Twitter will be whether he can withstand the pressure from Beijing to launder criticism and challenges from China on the platform,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of the nonprofit group PEN America. . “No matter what incremental changes he makes to the platform in the name of free speech, he risks being put under the weight of a heavy Chinese hand that controls what Musk has rightly called a global public square.”

Chen Weihua, a journalist at China Daily, appealed directly to Musk, arguing that such labels suppress freedom of expression and contradict Musk’s stated principles. The billionaire has not given a clear indication of how he would settle such cases.

“By ‘freedom of speech’ I simply mean what is in accordance with the law,” Musk wrote on Twitter. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.”

Bots are another matter. China has also used automated and anonymous accounts to distribute government messages, prompting Twitter to remove more than 170,000 accounts by 2020 to “spread geopolitical narratives favorable to the Communist Party.” Musk has promised to “fight the spammers or die when they try!” and sounds determined to continue to take on the fake accounts.

Beijing has shown a willingness to punish billionaires who do not follow their wishes. Regulators have hammered the country’s technology giants and effectively banished Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. founder Jack Ma from public view.

There are incentives outside the electric car market. Musk’s SpaceX can certainly seek Chinese customers, while his Boring Co. can benefit from lucrative infrastructure contracts in the country.

And what about Twitter itself? Part of the Chinese population uses virtual private networks to evade Beijing’s control and use the service. Can Beijing also offer access to its 1.4 billion people? Maybe under the right conditions. They would certainly not include freedom of speech.


India is another market with high efforts for Twitter: there are half a billion internet users in the country and another half a billion who are online.

Twitter plays a role in India’s online discourse similar to that in the United States: the country’s political leaders use it to get their messages out, which are then forwarded over TV and news networks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an early adopter and has 78 million followers on the service – more than Twitter has registered users in the country.

But the New Delhi government has insisted on far more control than Washington has ever been able to exercise. Tensions in the relationship increased during peasant protests in the country in 2020 and 2021 when Twitter and the government collided over what kind of speech would be tolerated on the platform.

When peasant groups demanded the repeal of certain laws they said favored business-run farms, they took to the streets and social media to advance their cause, including Twitter.

Prime Minister Modi’s administration insisted that the San Francisco-based company take down posts that were critical of their actions – and Twitter initially refused to follow suit. Indian authorities then threatened to imprison 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 “freedom of expression” can conflict with government orders and compliance with the law. 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 prosecutors, who will be responsible for handling official removal requests and who may risk jail time for non-compliance. Twitter took office, albeit after a delay.

It is not clear how Musk would reconcile his support for more freedom of speech with such strict state controls.

“Twitter should comply with the country’s laws,” the future owner said in an interview.

The issue is hardly limited to India. Nearby Sri Lanka restricted access to social media in anticipation of protests in April, while Myanmar’s military junta last year completely disrupted Internet access in its efforts to quell the opposition. Researchers found that Twitter was the most blocked social media platform globally with a total of 12,379 hours of interruptions in 2021.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia has become one of the fastest growing internet markets, run by countries such as Indonesia and India that get their huge population online.

Southeast Asia’s digital economy will reach $ 363 billion by 2025

But emerging markets come with their own problems. Meta Platforms Inc. names the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia as prominent sources of counterfeit and duplicate accounts. Meta, whose Facebook and Instagram services face similar challenges as Twitter, has for years reported in its annual registrations that about 11% of worldwide users are duplicate accounts and another 5% are fake. As with China, Twitter will have its work cut out to exterminate synthetic users.

Freedom of expression also violates local laws in this region. Singapore passed a controversial “foreign interference” law last year that empowered it to demand user information from social networks, in an effort to prevent outsiders from swaying domestic politics. Will it fit with Musk’s ambition for freewheel expression?

Vietnam has posed similar challenges to online service providers such as Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google, with a cybersecurity law effectively forcing a choice between maintaining users’ privacy and following local rules.

The question to be answered in the coming years is how far Musk will stick to his promises to release 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 the Lowy Institutes Rose. “Musk has a globalist view and his business interests to date have tended to be quite universal. But something like the media requires a more nuanced approach when used globally.”

(Apart from the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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