The New York Times is reporting this week that social media giant Facebook has developed a new “censorship tool” for use by the Chinese government, in the company’s latest aggressive move to get into the potentially lucrative Chinese market. The news comes as Facebook begins new controversial blocking of “fake news” in the US, a development China has reportedly used to argue for increased internet censorship.
Earlier this year, Facebook ran into public relations problems when Gizmodo reported that the site had regularly suppressed conservative-leaning articles from its “trending” news section. More recently, it’s been reported that President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial comments last year on banning Muslims from entering the US kicked off a heated internal debate within Facebook, “with some employees arguing certain posts (…) should be removed for violating the site’s rules on hate speech, according to people familiar with the matter.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly decided ultimately that “it would be inappropriate to censor the candidate,” according to the Wall Street Journal, though he made statements during the election that appeared to favor Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump. A faction of Facebook employees also reportedly used an internal poll to petition Zuckerberg about whether the company should be actively trying “to help prevent President Trump in 2017.”
Even before the Democrats’ worse-than-expected performance on election day, however, not all Facebook employees were committed to furthering the Party’s political aims. The same Gizmodo article that exposed Facebook’s suppression of conservative news stories also noted that the company actively promoted the Black Lives Matter movement, apparently at least in part due to public relations concerns about the company’s own overwhelmingly white staff. Zuckerberg also has felt compelled to scold his employees for crossing out the Black Lives Matter slogan on the company’s “signature wall.”
The article on Facebook’s questionable “trending” news section also noted that the company’s motives were not purely based on ideological preference:
Facebook has struggled to compete with Twitter when it comes to delivering real-time news to users; the injection tool may have been designed to artificially correct for that deficiency in the network. “We would get yelled at if it was all over Twitter and not on Facebook,” one former curator said.
In other instances, curators would inject a story—even if it wasn’t being widely discussed on Facebook—because it was deemed important for making the network look like a place where people talked about hard news. “People stopped caring about Syria,” one former curator said. “[And] if it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.”
As Kalev Leetaru of Forbes notes, Facebook’s active promotion of news about the Syrian conflict “has tremendous ramifications for the aid and development communities in that human editors at Facebook are wielding increasing control over the conflicts and crises people are aware of and the side of them they see, with potential impacts on donations and assistance. The (Gizmodo) article also notes that stories about Facebook itself were banned from the trending feed without high level managerial approval, ensuring that negative news about platform does not receive widespread attention.”
Despite Facebook’s best efforts, however, other troubling company practices have nonetheless received some attention, though not enough. There has been some limited criticism in the mainstream media, for example, of Facebook’s announcement earlier this year of a new campaign called the Online Civil Courage Initiative to block “hate speech” from its platform in Europe, on the grounds that such policies can easily become a slippery slope to harsher censorship — something those in the US presently concerned by right-wing “hate speech” may want to keep in mind as they prepare for a period of full control of the federal government by the Republican Party.
And, of course, it has been known since 2013 that Facebook was among the companies whose data was reported and demonstrated based on internal government documents to have been easily accessible to US spies via the National Security Agency’s PRISM program. While Facebook at first strongly denied that it gave the intelligence agency “direct access” to its customers’ data, it quickly became clear that the company was in fact cooperating closely with the NSA. Additionally, WhatsApp, a service owned by Facebook that bills itself as “fast, simple, secure messaging” has been revealed as having several major flaws with troubling implications for privacy and data security.
This week’s New York Times article on Facebook’s plan to work with the Chinese government on censorship notes that the company has previously blocked content in other countries. “But the new feature takes that a step further by preventing content from appearing in feeds in China in the first place,” rather than taking it down after it is posted.
This is only the latest step in the same direction that Facebook has visibly been moving for some time. It seems increasingly clear that major tech companies with origins in the US, including Facebook, are not primarily driven by any real ethical concern in their posturing about censorship and freedom of speech. They are concerned with making money, even if that means doing unethical things in the service of oppressive governments.
And the real concern for these companies with respect to surveillance, as demonstrated by much of the documentation of previously secret US government programs revealed in recent years, is not whether massive amounts of user data are handed over to spy agencies. The relevant questions from the perspectives of Washington, DC, and Silicon Valley, instead seem to have to do with who is responsible for doing the handing over, who can plausibly deny that they know about it, and who has to pay for the public relations campaigns to deal with the backlash.
“Some analysts have said Facebook’s best option is to follow a model laid out by other internet companies and cooperate with a local company or investor,” the Times article on Facebook’s China endeavors notes. “Finding a partner — and potentially allowing it to own a majority stake in Facebook’s China operation — would take the burden of censorship and surveillance off the Silicon Valley company.”