For all the furor about which way Elon Musk might tilt US political discourse after getting the keys to Twitter Inc, his biggest challenges may emerge across the Pacific.
Asia, home to more than half the world's population, is Twitter's biggest growth opportunity and arguably a far thornier challenge. If the Tesla Inc. and SpaceX billionaire makes good on promises to scrap censorship, he'll encounter a plethora of perplexing regulations, wielded by sometimes authoritarian governments, pushed to the limits by a horde of first-time internet users.
The numbers alone suggest Musk's biggest headaches lie abroad. Twitter's monetizable daily active users numbered 179 million internationally -- dwarfing the 38 million in the US in 2021, according to its latest annual report.
As a public company, Twitter has repeatedly emphasized it must abide by local regulations. Once it's a private concern controlled by the world's richest man, Musk will personally shoulder responsibility for navigating that thicket -- and the fallout if he fails.
"Asia has the potential to make or break the new Twitter," said JJ Rose, a contributor to Australia's nonpartisan Lowy Institute think tank. "It will depend on how he approaches it, if he can harness it for his free speech aims."
Representatives for Twitter and Musk didn't 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 Inc. founder Jeff Bezos alluded to the potential conflicts in a tweet shortly after Musk's deal, asking "Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?"
An obvious point is that China is tremendously important for Tesla, the key source of Musk's wealth. The billionaire will certainly face pressures -- implicit or explicit -- to fine-tune Twitter's policies to please Beijing.
As the world's biggest electric-vehicle market as well as a supplier of Tesla batteries, China is essential to the healthy growth of the centerpiece of Musk's business empire. Tesla has also benefited from significant tax breaks in setting up his Shanghai Gigafactory -- its first overseas plant -- and been allowed to wholly own its local operations, a rarity for a US firm.
A pressing issue is how Twitter handles China's efforts to spread propaganda globally on the platform. The company in 2020 instituted labels for government officials and "state-affiliated media" for publications like Xinhua and Global Times, and readers are reminded of this government-backing any time they like or retweet stories. Chinese media have called the practice "intimidation" and already begun to lobby the billionaire to roll it back.
"One of the fiercest tests of Musk's avowed commitment to expanding free speech on Twitter will lie in whether he withstands pressure from Beijing to whitewash criticisms and challenges of China on the platform," said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of non-profit advocacy group PEN America. "Whatever incremental changes he makes on the platform in the name of free speech risk being subsumed beneath the weight of a heavy Chinese hand controlling what Musk has rightly dubbed a global public square."