Is Facebook Censoring Posts To Please China?
from the balancing-expression-and-safety dept
As Techdirt has reported before, one troubling consequence of China’s widespread online censorship is that users of some services outside that country are also affected. A recent incident suggests that as China’s soft power increases, so does its ability to influence even the most powerful of Western online companies. It concerns Tsering Woeser, perhaps the leading Tibetan activist, and certainly the most Net-savvy. As she explains in an article on China Change (NB — post contains some disturbing images of self-immolation):
On December 26, 2014, I reposted on my Facebook page a video of Tibetan Buddhist monk Kalsang Yeshe’s self-immolation that occurred on December 23 [in Tawu county, Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, China], accompanied by an excerpted report explaining that self-immolation is a tragic, ultimate protest against repression. A few hours later, my post was deleted by the Facebook administrator. I was rather shocked when a Facebook notice of deletion leapt out on screen, which I tweeted right away with the thought, “It’s been more than six years since I joined Facebook in 2008, and this is the first time my post was deleted! Does FB also have ‘little secretaries?’ “
“Little secretaries” refers to the censors hired by Chinese online services to remove politically sensitive material. Her article includes Facebook’s explanation for its move:
Facebook has long been a place where people share things and experiences. Sometimes, those experiences involve violence and graphic videos. We work hard to balance expression and safety. However, since some people object to graphic videos, we are working to give people additional control over the content they see. This may include warning them in advance that the image they are about to see contains graphic content. We do not currently have these tools available and as a result we have removed this content.
To which Woeser replies that there seems to be some double standards here:
Western democracies have recently resolved to strike ISIS, and the public support for this is largely the result of the Jihadist videos of beheading hostages that have been disseminated online. Facebook defended its inclusion of these beheading videos which it claims do not show the graphic moment of beheading. But I, for one, saw videos of the beheading moment on Facebook. I even saw footage of the executioners putting the severed head on the torso of the dead. Even with a video without the moment of beheading, does it not “involve violence” and is it therefore not “graphic?”
Moreover, she points out that there is a key difference between the videos of hostages being beheaded, and the images of self-immolation that she posted:
Tibetans who burn themselves to death are not seeking death for their own sake but to call attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. They die so that the Tibetans as a people may live in dignity. Those who took tremendous risk to videotape the self-immolation and to upload it online know perfectly that such videos will not be able to spread on Chinese websites, and they must be posted on websites in free societies such as Facebook for the world to see. When Facebook decides to delete the video to get rid of “graphic content,” it renders the sacrifice of the self-immolator and the risk taken by the videographer as nothing. Is that what Facebook wants to accomplish?
She concludes by posing an important question about Facebook’s true motives here:
On Facebook, videos of Tibetan self-immolations have not been censored before, and my friends argued that we have reason to worry that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is compromising on defending users’ freedom of expression as he seeks China’s permission to allow Facebook in China, given that he visited Beijing two months ago and met with high-ranking Chinese officials, and that a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Zuckerberg received Lu Wei, China’s Internet czar in Facebook?s headquarters where he ingratiated himself to his guest by showing that he and his employees were reading [China’s President] Xi Jinping’s writings to learn about China.
The view that Facebook is selling-out in order to ingratiate itself with the Chinese authorities is lent support by another story involving a Facebook post by a Chinese dissident, reported here by The New York Times:
Amid growing censorship pressures around the world, Facebook suspended the account of one of China’s most prominent exiled writers after he posted pictures of a streaking anti-government demonstrator.
On Tuesday, the exiled writer, Liao Yiwu, said that he had received a notice from Facebook stating that his account had been temporarily suspended, and that it would be blocked permanently if he continued to violate the site’s rules against nudity.
Once again, the excuse for censorship is that it violated Facebook’s rules. But that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny:
Mr. Liao said the case was not that simple. In an interview at his home in Berlin, the 56-year-old writer said he had covered up the genitalia of the streaker in the photo after people pointed out that it might violate Facebook rules. He cut out a picture of the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and pasted it over the man’s groin in the photo. His account was suspended several days after doing so.
Taken together, these two cases certainly seem to indicate a new desire by Facebook to stay on the right side of the Chinese government by removing politically sensitive content, perhaps in the hope that it may be allowed to launch in China at some point. That’s bad enough, but the situation is made worse by the company’s feeble attempts to pretend otherwise.