Twitter is banned in China, but that doesn't stop the Chinese government from putting the app to good use to promote propaganda.
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And now that the social media platform is being bought by the world's richest man, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the Chinese government may have gained some influence over the future of the service.
Jeff Bezos, the world's second-richest man behind Musk, and owner of the Washington Post and SpaceX rival BlueOrigin, is apparently concerned about China's ability to influence future Twitter owner Elon Musk.
China is Tesla's second largest sales market and a key driver of growth. Tesla's Shanghai gigafactory, which opened in 2019, was the electric vehicle maker's first production site outside the United States. The factory, which makes vehicles for the Chinese and European markets - although the Berlin Gigafactory now supports Europe - is Tesla's most productive. plant.
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The Chinese government rolled out the red carpet to bring Tesla to Shanghai, offering loans and subsidized rentals to start construction. Tesla was the first foreign automaker allowed 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 soured around April last year, after some car owners protested the electric vehicle maker's data privacy policies.
In early 2021, the owner of a Chinese Tesla requested access to driver data Tesla kept about an accident the driver believed involved a Tesla brake failure.
Tesla refused to share the data, until state media criticized the company for its "arrogance" and the government called Tesla's Chinese executives to a closed-door meeting to criticize them. Subsequently, Tesla changed its data privacy services.
In a follow-up to his own tweet, Bezos returned to the idea that Tesla's exposure to China could lead Musk to implement pro-China censorship on Twitter.
But censorship is not really the problem here. With Musk soon in charge, perhaps China should benefit from a relative lack of censorship.
In August 2020, Twitter released a tagging policy for accounts affiliated with public entities. The move appeared to be a direct response to the Chinese government's increased use of the platform to promote its own narrative abroad.
Chinese state media used paid ads on Twitter to promote stories opposing the 2019 Hong Kong protests, prompting Twitter to ban state-affiliated media from buying ads. And Twitter has two blog posts explaining its decision to label state media accounts, one of which includes a prefix that specifically mentions China.
“China blocks access to Twitter for regular users. We believe that people benefit from the added context when interacting with Chinese government and state-affiliated accounts," the statement read.
If Twitter's tagging policy was designed to limit the reach of China's propaganda efforts, then it seemed to work. In 2021, a China Media Project study showed that tweets from Chinese state media saw a 20% drop in user engagement after Twitter implemented its tagging policy.
If Musk, who has promised to make Twitter a bastion of free speech, reverses these policies, it could pave the way for China's propaganda machine.