Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has asked whether Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter will give China “a bit of leverage” over the platform.
Twitter is blocked in China but Mr Musk‘s electric car business Tesla is dependent on the company’s plant in Shanghai and sales across the country for its global profits.
Explaining the motivation behind his $44bn takeover, Mr Musk said: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
But these free speech qualities have meant the platform has repeatedly clashed with the forces of the Chinese government, where open dissent can be brutally opposed.
Twitter says it has historically suspended more than 223,000 accounts which were secretly operated on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party for the purposes of propaganda and control.
Shortly after the deal was announced, and quoting a reporter from The New York Times who detailed Tesla’s exposure to China, Mr Bezos tweeted: “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?”
He later added: “My own answer to this question is probably not. The more likely outcome in this regard is complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship at Twitter.”
“But we’ll see. Musk is extremely good at navigating this kind of complexity,” he continued, offering what might be seen as a backhanded compliment; Mr Musk has notably held his tongue regarding COVID-19 lockdowns in China affecting factory production despite describing similar moves in the US as “fascism”.
Shares in Tesla were down 10% on Tuesday as investors gave their own verdict on the growing stable of interests competing for Mr Musk’s time.
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are currently the top two of the Bloomberg Billionaires Index with a net worth of $257bn and $170bn respectively.
Many have compared their entrepreneurship and their competing space companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin – with the former last year suing the US government for awarding a $2.9bn contract to the latter – but the move to buy Twitter brings the world’s wealthiest twosome into new shared territory.
The language used by Mr Musk in explaining the deal echoes that of Mr Bezos when he acquired The Washington Post newspaper. Mr Bezos said he bought the newspaper because it had “an incredibly important role to play in this democracy” although according to the paper’s former editor Marty Baron he “never interfered” in the “journalistic mission”.
Elon Musk on the other hand has styled himself as a free speech absolutist at a time when governments around the world – including the UK – are looking at ways to force social media platforms to be liable for the content they host, including criminal liability for the companies’ executives.
Mr Musk, who criticised social media companies becoming the “de facto arbiter of free speech” following Twitter’s decision to permanently ban President Trump, has several new complexities to navigate.