Debate continues to simmer over the threats of "fake news" and the civic and journalistic responsibilities of the world's largest and most powerful social media platform. What does state censorship in China have to do with all of that? We asked ourselves that very question.

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January 17, 2018*

It was a handshake nine years in the making.

Amid a mass of red and blue banners — with Facebook’s mission "Making The World More Open And Connected" written in big white letters  — Mark Zuckerberg and Ren Xianliang, China’s deputy head of cyberspace administration, sealed a long-awaited agreement in front of a pulsating crowd of students at Tsinghua University. Having been summarily banned from China in 2009, Facebook was finally re-entering the Chinese market after authorities deemed Facebook’s content-suppression software to be in full compliance with the country’s censorship laws.

"We are very happy that Facebook and China are restoring the world’s faith in the digital space, by making sure that all online issues are related to reality," Ren declared before the well-orchestrated event, an odd blend of news conference and university pep rally.

Zuckerberg said he was excited to see where 750 million Chinese users would take Facebook’s community. He ended with a salutation in Mandarin, earning a foot-stomping ovation.

With all the smiles at Tsinghua, it was easy to forget how resistant China had been to Facebook’s attempts to enter its booming online market. The ban had come swiftly after independence activists in the Xinjiang region used the social media platform for internal communications. In the years that followed, and despite numerous visits by Zuckerberg, the Beijing authorities remained unyielding in refusing Facebook’s entry past the so-called Great Firewall of China.

The key to reverse the situation first came in 2016 when Facebook began quietly developing a news-filtering software that had the potential to satisfy China’s censorship demands. That project initially provoked controversy, but Donald Trump’s election and the furore around fake news became just the smokescreen the social media giant needed to make its Chinese dream a reality.

Fake News’ ascent

Following Trump’s surprise victory, fake news quickly had become the phrase of the moment, following a falsehoods zeitgeist that prompted the Oxford Dictionary to select "post-truth" as its word of the year in 2016. Stories ranging from Pope Francis endorsing Trump for the presidency to Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS sprung up on people’s news feeds in the weeks before the U.S. election.

Political leaders, newspaper editors and tech companies alike expressed concern about the risks that fabricated stories could pose for democracy. Clinton supporters blamed the phenomenon for her loss. Trump, meanwhile, assigned the fake news label to virtually any criticism of him that appeared in the media, making sure to hold on to the "k" in "fake" for extra theatrics.

Initially, Facebook had strongly resisted the idea that it should accept editorial responsibility for the content published on its platform; it was fearful of the costs and the extra regulation this could mean. But under intense public pressure — and a German bill that proposed up to a 500,000-euro fine per fake article — the company began to take steps to demonstrate it was acting against the truly and blatantly made-up stories. In January 2017, after a series of false reports targeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel surfaced on social media, the company released a fake news-filtering mechanism that allowed users to report articles as fake.

The system sent articles flagged by a sufficient number of users to Correctiv, a third-party fact-checking nonprofit staffed by investigative journalists who would work to determine the content’s validity. Stories found to be false were then marked as "disputed" and placed under a restriction by Facebook’s news feed algorithm, with a warning sent to users who chose to share them.

The U.S. version of the system arrived in May, with the fact checking delegated to major American news outlets as well as nonprofits. The Associated Press, ABC News, PolitiFact and Snopes signed on. The initiative earned early praise, with Facebook credited for a bold response to counter the post-truth age.

Chinese officials quickly began labeling articles critical of their rule "假新闻": fake news.

But after that initial enthusiasm, the new system quickly took a different turn. A number of the news outlets signed on to fact-check began to lose interest: Up against the armies of trolls, the value of experienced reporters dedicating their time to debunking often obviously absurd pieces seemed questionable amid ever-shrinking newsroom budgets. At the same time, users and media commentators asked why Facebook wasn’t simply removing the posts automatically.

But the controversy took on an entirely different dimension when people realized the tool that would allow this already existed: in China.

The mechanism built for China, unlike the U.S. version, did away with the flaggers and fact-checkers and simply deleted posts based on keyword analysis. Facebook was not responsible for choosing which posts were removed  —  that was handed to a third-party company, which set the keywords.

China almost immediately saw that the frenzy over fake news in Western democracies was an opportunity to expand censorship over their country’s online activity. Chinese officials soon began labeling articles critical of their rule "假新闻": fake news.

From propaganda to censorship

The blurring of debunking and censorship happened quickly. Facebook had already had a long history of generally obeying foreign governments’ requests to suppress access to content: Between July and December 2015, the company blocked as many as 55,000 pieces of content in about 20 countries. But the new content-suppression mechanism became a faster and far more effective tool for authoritarian governments. Whereas previously the authorities had to make requests, their flaggers and supporters could now do the job for them.

In April 2016, Turkey became the first country to use the content-suppression software to not just restrict circulation and flag stories but also to remove content altogether. Articles deemed "insulting to the president" or to "Turkish identity" often evaporated from Facebook. Zeynep Gülec, a self-exiled former reporter for the newspaper Hürriyet, published an open letter in which she said "fighting for media freedom in Turkey was always hard, but with Facebook’s new tool it has become impossible."

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China, for its part, accepted Facebook’s opening to its market after delegating the fact-checking responsibility to Zhenli, a newly created Chinese company based in Beijing linked to senior Communist officials and staffed by veterans of state-run news agencies.

Back at home

Back in the U.S., the effects of Facebook’s content filtering were less monolithic but no less momentous. The rollout of the system met with a fierce public backlash and a joint letter from the editors-in-chief of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and more than 50 other daily newspapers, giving Zuckerberg a lesson about both the U.S. First Amendment and the costs of playing ball with the Beijing regime.

A faster and far more effective tool for authoritarian governments.

Facebook, which had hired an editorial staff to help manage the filtering, became the focus of intense partisan criticism, particularly from Republicans who said the mechanism was "rigged." President Trump, for his part, railed against the "pathetic fact-checkers" and "Mark Zuckercrook". Democrats also attacked the mechanism after a series of embarrassing deletions of ironic posts and those examining troubling issues, such as gun violence and pedophilia. The civil liberties group ACLU filed several suits against the Palo Alto platform for limiting free speech, even when it is false.

Meanwhile, despite the 700 million potential users in China, the development of the past six months that matters most to Mark Zuckerberg is rooted in the U.S., where more and more of the most extreme users on both sides of the political spectrum have begun deleting their Facebook accounts, passing their time instead on two brand new alternative social media platforms that avoided any filtering. Their names, perhaps unsurprisingly, are Rightbook and Leftbook.



*True Fiction: A narrative experiment for an era of fake news and hard-to-believe reality. (This piece was published on March 7, 2017)

**Niko Efstathiou is a U.S.-based writer with an interest in the history and politics of the Eastern Mediterranean. He's a member of Worldcrunch's iQ platform.