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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “Is Facebook Censoring Posts To Please China?”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

If the Chinese government could just buy FB outright, make the new ownership official, that would be great. None of the uncertainty, the pretending and the lies, just ‘They own us now, so we do what they say, and that means removing anything that might be seen as being critical of them.’

It’s bad enough that the poor saps in China have to deal with a seriously restricted internet due to the oppressive government over there, we really don’t need that censorship to spread outwards, just to appease a bunch of losers who can’t stand criticism or commentary.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Sorry, John, that makes my head hurt.

“an aggressively antidemocratic government that is also capitalist.”

But “Capitalism is not a governmental system.”

So… what do you call it when the capitalists are running the goverment on free (for all) trade principles while selling it to the public as free market economics? They’re outsourcing administration, etc., to private companies, so in what way is that not a system?

I’m genuinely curious.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Sad, just sad

Exactly like Dems.

One need look no further that what a college campus looks like to see what the dems want for the Nation.

Heavily Controlled speech, no freedom, guilty till proven innocent… exorbitant taxes/tuition and a juicy corrupt off its rocker alumnus/government. Endless worship of humans like Obama and Hillary as though they are messiahs. Obama has screwed his side so bad they should be trying to lynch him but I don’t see that happening.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Sad, just sad

Oh, good lord. Must everything be viewed through the distortion of partisan politics? The true fact is that both the Republican and Democratic parties want to control everything everything to pretty much the same degree. Including free speech. On these sort of issues, the only difference between the two is precisely what types of things they are most interested in controlling.

Anonymous Coward says:

I'm getting cynical

I really wish I wasn’t so cynical now, but we know the US wants these powers. What if this is just a test to see how much people will actually care?
“Ok, we’ll give you this if you appease China.”
If it works: “You have a precedent here. Now, treat us like you do them.”
If it doesn’t: “Do you see what China is up to? Damn Commies.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Good. I hope they go balls-to-the-walls all out on this so we can all move over to a better service.
Facebook is increasingly getting worse.

Speaking of better services, I’d love to see what other people would suggest as a replacement for Facebook. I know G+ and MySpace still exist, but what is actually a ‘good’ service?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

G+ is, in my opinion, one of the worst of these types of services. If you really want to use something along these lines, I don’t think that you can get better than Facebook right now.

The better option is to just avoid these services entirely. If you want to keep your friends and family up to date on your doings, start a personal blog. This is easy and cheap (even free).

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I was speaking more functionally than what type of people tend to use them. I used G+ for a year or so before I had to give up completely on it due to technical issues including things that just don’t work right as well as it being hard to use.

From a technical point of view, G+ is the only such service I used that was so flawed. That’s why I rate it the worst. It has nothing to do with the community itself.

Anonymous Coward says:

Bloomberg not writing negative articles about China, Facebook censoring posts China doesn’t like, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN not wanting to show the images that got the French journalists killed in the recent attacks because they are “offensive” – seriously, what’s happening to the “land of the free”? Because it’s starting to look much less so.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

… Fox News, MSNBC and CNN not wanting to show the images that got the French journalists killed in the recent attacks because they are “offensive” …

Well, in their defense, one of them was a pretty slobbery homosexual kiss. I’m sure that wouldn’t have gone over very well with their viewers, nor their advertisers.

Pathetic. Those cartoonists were channeling Voltaire! The “cheeze eating surrender monkeys” are looking a lot more courageous than the USA these days. I never thought I’d say this, but bravo Huffington Post! They posted them.

… seriously, what’s happening to the “land of the free”? Because it’s starting to look much less so.

Starting?!? Where’ve you been for the past fourteen years?

Anonymous Coward says:

Lesson #1: Facebook is NOT "social media"

Facebook is, as Stallman famously said, mass surveillance.

Which is of course why the Chinese government is very anxious to have it adopted en masse in their country: it will expand the reach of their data collection activities.

Provided, of course, that Facebook facilitates it. WHICH THEY WILL, because Facebook’s sole motive is profit, and if profiting in the Chinese market requires giving a full data feed to the government, they’ll do it without hesitation.

And why not? Who will know? And if they do know, who will believe them? And if it comes out, they have plausible deniability — they can claim, without an appropriate degree of righteous indignation, that they were hacked (wink, wink). Or they can claim that they were required to do so in order to be in compliance with the laws of China, the same they might be required to comply in Australia or Brazil.

Facebook is in the business of making money by any means necessary and/or possible. Of course they will sell out their members to the Chinese government, because Facebook members are not Facebook users: they’re merely the product.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t care about twitter, myspace or facebook.
I usually block tossers that send me to read articles on there.
The only commenting system I’ve tried was Disqus, and I didn’t like it, for slowing down the site somewhat.
There’s always someone, somewhere trying to censor your shit. Censor all of theirs in return.
I prefer sites like here where I can just post without logging in, or providing any contact details and will not be censored unless it’s a horrible troll/shill comment, but even those can still be viewed.

Anonymous Coward says:


“Are we that far behind? Is it that better to live in a pseudo-democracy where you can’t see where you’ll be hit from? “

Sorry, but that’s stupid moral equivalence.

In America and the west, we still have freedom of speech to speak against the government without being jailed or killed.

You can burn the American flag but try the same to the Chinese flag or hold up a picture of Dalai Lama and get thrown in labor camp and worst have your organs harvested hby the government.

China is deeply corrupt and even the socialist notion of rule of law is for sale.

Don’t be foolled by China’s anticorruption campaigns, it’s only for show and they are still jailing anticorruption activists.

Anonymous Coward says:

Zuckerberg is laughing all the way to the bank every time someone uses his service. It’s his service, and he can do anything he wants to with it.

– sell details about account holder’s personal information
– censor whatever the little secretaries request
– mess with people’s news feeds in order to make them think happy thoughts

I don’t mind if people use his services, because I still have the right to opt out of using such services. People make their own choices in life. Rightfully so.

tqk (profile) says:

… the leading Tibetan activist, and certainly the most Net-savvy.

That’s sad (that she’s the most savvy), and we appear to have wildly different interpretations of that phrase. First, net-savvy people don’t do Facebook, or if they do they have a healthy skepticism about it. Second, she’s apparently ignorant of FB’s raison d’etre: make money from selling its users’ eyeballs to advertisers. Third, she’s not noticed that FB is just itching to get at China’s 3+ billion suck … er, users? That’s not even web-savvy.

She should request an interview with the Dalai Lama. Last I heard, he was pretty much on top of this sort of stuff.

Failing that, next time put the thing on a website (or a few websites, and torrent sites, and anonymous ftp sites) then use every means possible (Twitter, email, news media, maybe even FB) to publicize its availability. That way, Zuckerberg and his minions likely will never even hear of what she’s done, and won’t be able to interfere even if they do.

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