Sina Weibo is often referred to as the “Chinese Twitter” but now the incredibly popular social media platform looks to expand outside of the People’s Republic of China. Using a two-pronged strategy, Weibo first seeks to become the go-to platform for Chinese speakers outside of the People’s Republic while the company also looks to create brands aimed at multilingual audiences across the world including a possible English language platform that could potentially rival Twitter and Instagram.
American based social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the video site Youtube continue to dominate global markets but the growing popularity of the Russian social media network VKontakte (usually called VK) as well as the Russian instant messaging service Telegram outside of the Russophone world indicates that there is market space for non-US derived social media and messaging platforms even in the English speaking world. Crucially, VK and Telegram hardly have any advertising in countries like the United States, but the platforms continue their modest rise thanks in large part to VK’s almost complete lack of censorship, something which contrasts favourably to the increasingly trigger-happy censors on US based platforms.
Even before branching outside of the domestic Chinese market, Weibo is still the 17th most popular website in the world which means it is just ahead of VK which sits at number 19, in spite of the Russian network being used across more countries than Weibo at present.
This means that there is tremendous potential for Weibo to expand into countries with a notable Chinese speaking population ranging from Han Chinese born in Singapore and Malaysia to Chinese speaking immigrants and their bilingual children in Canada and the United States. Furthermore, given Weibo’s financial strength, if the company were to set up platforms in English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and French, the potential for Weibo to rival the multilingual options on US based platforms could potentially be substantial.
While Weibo expansion plans are set to proceed at a pace that is more slow and steady than frantic, there is clearly a political angle to the expansion – whether intended or otherwise. The United States has used the context of the anti-Chinese trade war to ratchet up a dis-information campaign against China with accusations of a non-existent anti-Muslim conspiracy in Xinjiang province being a notable tactic that the US is using to try and convince Muslim majority states to break off their valuable economic ties with Beijing.
If Russia’s experience with a US led infowar is of any use for China, it is so because Russia has helped to fight a campaign of Russophobic racist defamation through the online presence of media outlets like RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik. Yet with US based social media companies censoring foreign content left and right, a non-US based social media company with a substantial global presence can help China and its partners to disseminate information throughout the world, including to countries where Sinophobic racism is increasing with worrying rapidity.
Furthermore, because unlike Russia, China exports billions of Dollars worth of goods to the US, Washington would have a difficult time banning an English language Weibo across a would-be Great Trump Firewall of America. While Russia has leverage against the US mainly in the military and energy arenas, China has leverage against the US in the vital economic sphere. Thus, Weibo’s international presence would be difficult for the US to curtail as the country is highly reliant on both the Chinese market for exports and on Chinese imports.
By taking things slowly and determining international market trends with diligence, Weibo may stand to profit from the gradual dissatisfaction that many in the west are feeling regarding US based social media platforms that are becoming increasingly more restrictive in terms of content diversity. Rather than building an all-new platform from the ground up, a modified version of Weibo could be the answer for global audiences looking to break free from the American corporate monopoly on social media.