With Elon Musk, China now has a serious “leverage” on Twitter

“Not intending to stay”; ‘I don’t trust Musk’; “I’m leaving the network” … It’s an understatement to say that the personality of the new boss of Twitter arouses the excitement of a fringe of the users of the platform. And yet, it is not this facet that is likely to pose the most problem to the blue bird. The social network finds itself in an unprecedented position: that of being the property of an American entrepreneur whose financial interests are also closely linked to China.

The country is indeed strategic for Tesla. The manufacturer of electric cars produces half of its cars within the Giga Shanghai, and depends heavily on China for certain raw materials (cobalt, nickel, etc.) essential for the construction of batteries. Finally, the Chinese market is a cake that arouses all desires. Musk believes that the country will become the world’s largest electric market. Tesla already generates a quarter of its turnover there. However, the personal fortune of Elon Musk is itself largely backed by the good health of Tesla (he still owns 17%).

This connection of Elon Musk to China should not be taken lightly. Because the country is regularly accused of orchestrating disinformation operations to influence opinion on sensitive political issues. Also on October 26, the cybersecurity company Mandiant warned of an influence campaign aimed at discouraging Americans from voting in the November midterm elections and making world public opinion believe that the United States had sabotaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines. “We believe with virtual certainty that these actors are operating in support of the political interests of the People’s Republic of China and are aggressively targeting the United States to sow division between the country and its allies and undermine the American political system,” Mandiant said in a statement. a note.

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The big gap between Tesla and Twitter

While Twitter is banned in China, the country is also paradoxically one of the biggest advertisers on the blue bird social network, with local authorities actively using it to communicate their vision of the world outside their borders. The impact that digital influence operations can have should not be underestimated. The 2021 invasion of the Capitol following the fake news spread by Donald Trump and his supporters about the good conduct of the elections is the sad reminder of this. Twitter had in recent years taken steps to combat this scourge. The network thus alerts Internet users more frequently to messages likely to contain false information. It also sometimes limits their distribution by allowing, for example, to read them but not to “like” them or to retweet them. Some government-controlled news outlets are also labeled – much to their chagrin – as “state media”.

Given Tesla’s financial interests in the Middle Kingdom, however, one can wonder about the reaction that Elon Musk will have “when Chinese actors will (…) ask him to stop labeling accounts disseminating propaganda of state and turn a blind eye to the influence campaigns that have run on the platform”, points out Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, on Twitter. The Washington Post also underlines the concern that the purchase of Twitter arouses among certain American intelligence officials and the White House.

Standing up to China on the Twitter issue will not be easy for Elon Musk, because Beijing can seriously complicate Tesla’s life on its soil if it does not get what it wants. The manufacturer is the first foreign player to own a car factory on Chinese soil, but the local authorities remain in possession of the land and can evict it quite easily. Even without going that far, a few negative articles published by media close to the state would be more than enough to bring down Tesla’s sales in China – the manufacturer had the bitter experience of this in 2021.

Elon Musk, who is well aware of these risks, is also much wiser in China than in the United States. While he vociferously refused to pause his US factories during Covid-19 peaks, he did not hesitate when Beijing called for the Shanghai plant to be temporarily halted. In January 2022, to Washington’s dismay, he also agreed to open a Tesla showroom in Xinjiang, a region where Beijing forcibly interns Muslim minorities. An action undoubtedly highly appreciated by Beijing, the presence of a foreign actor of such renown in the area coming in a certain way to “normalize” the abuses taking place there. Also in October, China welcomed Musk’s position in the Financial Times, where he suggested making Taiwan a special administrative zone of China. The arrival of the billionaire follower of a very maximalist version of freedom of expression is therefore not bad news for Beijing, far from it. “Chinese regime will love Musk’s takeover of Twitter, wrote in April Antoine Bondazresearcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research. [Avec Tesla] He now has a real means of pressure on the social network.


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