Elon Musk’s Twitter targets face reality check in India, China

Elon Musk's Twitter targets face reality check in India, China

Asia is Twitter’s biggest growth opportunity and arguably an even tougher challenge. (case)

For all the hype about how Elon Musk might change American political discourse after acquiring the keys to Twitter Inc, his biggest challenges may emerge across the Pacific.

Asia, home to more than half the world’s population, is the biggest opportunity for growth on Twitter and arguably an even more difficult challenge. If the billionaire Tesla Inc. And SpaceX promises to scrap censorship, it will face a slew of bewildering regulations, at times practiced by authoritarian governments, that have been pushed to the limits by a throng of first-time netizens.

The numbers alone suggest that Musk’s biggest problems lie outside. Twitter had 179 million monetized daily active users globally — more than 38 million users in the United States in 2021, according to its latest annual report.

As a public company, Twitter has repeatedly emphasized that it must comply with local regulations. Once a private concern becomes controlled by the world’s richest man, Musk will personally take responsibility for navigating that jungle — and the repercussions if he fails.

“Asia has the potential to make or break the new Twitter,” said JJ Rose, a contributor to the nonpartisan Australian Lowy Institute. “It will depend on how he deals with it, if he can harness it to his freedom of speech goals.”

Twitter and Musk representatives 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. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos hinted at potential conflicts in a tweet shortly after the Musk deal, asking, “Did the Chinese government gain some influence on the town square?”

The point is that China is very important to Tesla, the main source of Musk’s wealth. The billionaire will certainly face pressure – implicit or explicit – to adjust Twitter’s policies to please Beijing.

As the world’s largest electric vehicle market as well as a supplier of Tesla batteries, China is essential to the healthy growth of Musk’s business empire hub. Tesla also benefited from significant tax breaks in setting up Shanghai Gigafactory – its first offshore factory – and allowing it to own its entire local operations, a rarity for an American company.

One pressing issue is how Twitter handles China’s efforts to spread propaganda globally on the platform. In 2020, the company placed posters of government officials and “state media” for publications such as Xinhua and the Global Times, and readers are reminded of this government support anytime they wish or retweet stories. Chinese media described the practice as “intimidation” and have already begun to pressure the billionaire to roll it back.

“One of the fiercest tests of Musk’s stated commitment to expanding freedom of expression on Twitter lies in whether he will resist pressure from Beijing to whitewash criticism and challenges facing China on the platform,” said Susan Nossel, CEO of the nonprofit group PEN America. . “Whatever further changes he makes to the platform in the name of freedom of expression, there is a risk that he will be drawn into the heavy Chinese hand that controls what Musk rightly calls a global public square.”

Chen Weihua, a journalist with the China Daily, directly appealed to Musk arguing that such designations suppress free speech and run counter to Musk’s stated principles. The billionaire did not give a clear indication of how he would decide such matters.

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

Robots are another matter. China has also used automated and anonymous accounts to distribute government messages, prompting Twitter to remove more than 170,000 accounts in 2020 in order to “spread pro-Communist geopolitical narratives”. Musk vowed to “defeat the spam bots or die trying!” He seems intent on continuing to deal with the fake accounts.

Beijing has shown its willingness to punish billionaires who do not comply with its wishes. The regulators have attacked the country’s tech giants and removed the co-founder of Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd. Jack Ma from public view.

There are incentives on offer outside of the electric car market. To be sure, Musk’s SpaceX is seeking Chinese customers, while his company Boring could benefit from lucrative infrastructure contracts in the country.

And what about Twitter itself? A segment of the Chinese employ virtual private networks to evade Beijing’s control and use the service. Could Beijing also offer access to its 1.4 billion people? Perhaps under the right terms. It certainly will not include freedom of expression.


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

Twitter plays a role in Indian online discourse similar to that in the United States: it is used by the country’s political leaders to spread their messages, which are then transmitted over television and news networks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an early adopter of the service and has 78 million followers – more than Twitter has registered users in the country.

But the New Delhi government insisted on much more control than Washington was able to impose. Tensions in the relationship rose during the country’s farmers protests in 2020 and 2021 as Twitter and the government clashed over what kind of rhetoric would be tolerated on the platform.

When farmers’ groups demanded the repeal of some laws they said favored corporate-run farms, they took to the streets and social media to promote their cause, including Twitter.

Prime Minister Modi’s administration insisted that the San Francisco-based company remove posts critical of 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 “freedom of expression” can conflict with government decrees and legal compliance. Later in 2021, New Delhi tightened its grip on social media such as Twitter and Facebook: the government insisted that companies designate specific individuals as grievance officers, who would be responsible for handling official removal requests and who could face prison sentences for non-compliance. Twitter joined, albeit after a delay.

It is not clear how Musk will reconcile his support for more free speech with such strict government controls.

“Twitter must comply with the laws of the state,” the next owner said in an interview.

The issue is hardly confined to India. Neighboring Sri Lanka restricted access to social media in anticipation of protests in April, while Myanmar’s military junta last year completely disabled internet access in its efforts to quell dissent. The researchers found that Twitter was the most-blocked social media platform globally, with outages totaling 12,379 hours in 2021.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia has become one of the fastest growing internet markets, fueled by countries like Indonesia and India that are moving their massive population online.

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

But developing markets come with their own set of issues. Meta Platforms Inc. is a The Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia are notable sources of fake and duplicate accounts. Meta, whose Facebook and Instagram services face similar challenges to Twitter, has reported for years in its annual files that nearly 11% of its users worldwide are duplicate accounts and another 5% are fake. As with China, Twitter will stop eliminating synthetic users.

Freedom of expression also conflicts with local laws in this region. Singapore passed a controversial “foreign interference” law last year that gives it powers to claim user information from social networks, in an effort to prevent outsiders from influencing internal politics. Is this consistent with Musk’s ambition for free speech?

Vietnam has posed similar challenges to online service providers like Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google, with a cybersecurity law effectively mandating a choice between supporting user privacy and adhering to local rules.

The question that must be answered over the coming years is how far Musk will stick to his promises to liberalize Twitter — not only in the United States, but in the rest of the world.

“Asia is not North America, it is not Europe,” said Rose of the Lowy Institute. “Musk has a global outlook and so far his business interests tend to be somewhat global. But something like the media requires a more nuanced approach when applied globally.”

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