Facebook, China, Fake News And The Slippery Slope Of Censorship

from the be-careful-what-you-wish-for dept

Well, I guess it’s time to complete the circle. Last week, we were warning that the rush to demonize Facebook for allowing “fake news” to be distributed and shared via its platform would lead to calls to suppress and censor certain view points. And then, this week came the news that China is strategically and opportunistically using the hubbub over “fake news” to push for greater censorship of the internet — claiming it’s necessary to stop fake news and keep people “better” informed (rather than the opposite).

And to top all of that off, comes a story from the NY Times about how Facebook has been working on a tool to allow the Chinese government to censor stories on Facebook as a condition of entering the market. It’s no secret that Facebook has been trying for a really long time to figure out a way to get into China. There are over a billion potential users there that Facebook really wants on its platform. And that’s not a bad thing. But, of course, China has a heavily censored internet. And while Facebook has been mostly blocked in China, there have already been reports from last year of stories being suppressed to appease the Chinese government.

And now comes “the tool.”

The social network has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people?s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Mr. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added.

Facebook has restricted content in other countries before, such as Pakistan, Russia and Turkey, in keeping with the typical practice of American internet companies that generally comply with government requests to block certain content after it is posted. Facebook blocked roughly 55,000 pieces of content in about 20 countries between July 2015 and December 2015, for example. But the new feature takes that a step further by preventing content from appearing in feeds in China in the first place.

Facebook does not intend to suppress the posts itself. Instead, it would offer the software to enable a third party ? in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company ? to monitor popular stories and topics that bubble up as users share them across the social network, the people said. Facebook?s partner would then have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users? feeds.

To be clear, the story notes that while this software has been developed, it’s not yet in use, and may never be in use. It’s there as a sort of “break glass, in case it’s needed” offering. And, not surprisingly, it’s also quite controversial within the company:

Over the summer, several Facebook employees who were working on the suppression tool left the company, the current and former employees said. Internally, so many employees asked about the project and its ambitions on an internal forum that, in July, it became a topic at one of Facebook?s weekly Friday afternoon question-and-answer sessions.

Mr. Zuckerberg was at the event and answered a question from the audience about the tool. He told the gathering that Facebook?s China plans were nascent. But he also struck a pragmatic tone about the future, according to employees who attended the session.

?It?s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it?s not yet the full conversation,? Mr. Zuckerberg said, according to employees.

In many ways, this is similar to the struggle that Google faced with China as well, concerning whether or not to locate operations there, and how to deal with demands for both censorship and surveillance from the Chinese government. And, in both cases, there is a reasonable argument for providing some tools to connect the Chinese to the rest of the world. But there’s also a quite reasonable fear of what a slippery slope this is and where it’s likely to end up.

But the timing of this story coming out seems particularly ridiculous. Just as Facebook has quite reasonably pushed back on the calls from people in the US to censor the newsfeed over “fake news,” for it to come out that it has a working tool to censor “real news” seems… kind of ridiculous. And, I’ve seen some people now pointing to this NY Times article as evidence that Facebook could block fake news if it wanted to. But that’s silly and misguided. It’s also implicitly arguing that Chinese-style censorship is the proper approach for the US. That’s not a good idea.

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Comments on “Facebook, China, Fake News And The Slippery Slope Of Censorship”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Fake News?

So, between mainline media succumbing to political access or print the stories the politicians want, who’s to tell us which news is fake? Traditionally, media tended to require two sources before they published (think Watergate era for an example) but who verified those sources?

If we want ‘real’ news, we are going to have to make some changes in the ways things are verified. Having websites, or even governments making the determination is a road to sponsored, or maybe sanctified lies.

Truth is an iffy thing. Sometimes it is the history written by the winners. Sometimes it is something that is verified by ‘good’ science (the ‘good’ being a point of view in some cases, and in others a step between knowing nothing and knowing something more). Sometimes truth is supported by verifiable facts, though at times those verifiable facts may be overturned by other facts withheld in the original analysis (think about criminals after having spent years in jail being exonerated with new information). Truth can be iffy.

So, whom do we anoint as the arbiters of truth? Politicians would be scary. Websites that could be coerced for a variety of reasons would be fanciful. Media who are coerced daily, either by the political leanings of their publishers, or governments who might control their ability to do business or have access aren’t actually reliable. The mob outside can be swayed in many ways, and may just be an emotional pile of bias.

So who’s left?

Q-A says:

Re: Fake News?

Reputable publishers have full-time “fact checkers” who check all the facts, and that includes verifying the two sources used. Unfortunately, there seem to be no actual laws to prevent disreputable publishers from skipping this step. Monopolization of the media has played a huge role in the decline in standards, as has the print media crash of 2005, as has the growing trend of using unpaid interns as free labour, and then letting them publish unprofessional pieces as a form of ego-compensation. So, basically, any attempt to stop fake news sites from spreading horsesh*t will be like sticking a Band-aid on the sucking chest wound that the journalistic profession has suffered as a whole, in the last decade.

I do that think a sensible first step would be for Facebook to have a popup disclaimer attached to every news item that passes through its site, reminding users that ‘Facebook is not responsible for verifying the truth of this piece’.

Another thing that should regularly pop-up on everyone’s screen, regardless of which platform they use, is an exhortation to “QUESTION EVERYTHING”. Luckily, I was taught this when I was in school, but it seems like that the vast majority of modern Facebook users were not so lucky. The lack of critical thought in the general Western population is an even bigger problem than any that faces the journalistic profession. ‘We should teach people how to think, not what to think.’

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Fake News?

Disreputable publishers? Like Rolling Stone magazine who printed the fake story of rape on the UVA campus? Sorry, but all mainstream media falls into the disreputable category these days and should be censored. But of course the left doesn’t mind the censorship since FB, Twitter and Google are big time supporters of the Democratic party. When the censorship fits your beliefs, you like it. But just like handing Obama all the power to make executive orders, I can guarantee you won’t like Trump’s executive orders which is why they should be despised by both side. Same goes for censorship of any kind.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Fake News?

Authoritarianism is everybody’s problem and it exists on both sides. Whereas the right was going nuts during the Obama regime spreading fake news about his citizenship, etc., we now have the progressive/liberals at it over Russian hacking, etc.

As for censorship, what do you call it when people hop in here and try to bully Mike into writing posts that they approve of instead of his generally public-minded libertarian-leaning work?

Christenson says:

Re: Fake News?

Who’s left?

Those not beholden to advertisers; that is, to independent individuals. Being able to trust “the news” is a 20th century fantasy, which worked to some degree when the FCC made sure then-influential local TV stations were moderately independent.

Facebook has too much pressure on it and spies too much already; it will succumb, just as did the traditional “news media”. I take it as a given that news must be winnowed down; Slashdot has an interesting moderation model.

So, techdirt, if I want news but with not so much tech, where should I turn?

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Fake News?

That is Truthout’s model and, well… have you ever read it? It’s a full-on left-wing propaganda machine with liberalism and progressivism on the side. And you all KNOW I don’t do the partisan thing so this is not a histrionic declaration on my part.

However, on the basis that even a stopped clock is right twice a day I’ll check it out from time to time if I’m intrigued by the headlines and snippets featured on Twitter — I’m friendly with some people on the progressive/liberal side and they share the articles. In between the bias and the slanting there are indeed bits of news but you have to tease the facts out from between the opinions. Since I find it a bind to do that I don’t usually bother with it.

The mainstream press is fairly accurate unless a hot-button issue is involved, so “tornado strikes trailer park” is going to be true. Again, you have to pick your way through the bias to get to the facts, but they don’t tend to lay it on so thick in the news reports as a rule. In the opinion pieces, anything goes. I’ve learned to give Krugman a wide berth because he’s too tied up with ideological concerns to think things through. Example: his take on TTIP and TPP until he was called out for going, “Ooh (a piece of candy!), a trade agreement!” while ignoring real concerns about ISDS.

News agencies usually provide the raw materials for the papers to report on so they’re worth paying attention to. Whatever your usual source is, watch out for bias; if they’re describing the situation in terms that provoke a particular sentiment or play to a particular echo chamber, I’d not pay too much attention to it. There’s no perfect source of information so don’t get too hung up about it, just be a bit wary when reading their stuff.

Will-INI (profile) says:

The Gate Keepers

The internet allowed people to bypass the gatekeepers and possibly swung an election. Wikileaks showed how the DNC and the media functioned as one. That group is increasingly calling for the censorship of “fake news.” They’ve gotten action and commitment from Facebook, Twitter and Google. They’re trying to put the destructive nature of the internet back in the bottle.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The Gate Keepers

What destructive nature? Where?

Human beings have a destructive nature(s), electronics do not.

The internet is a pinnacle in modern achievement – and they want to destroy it because it allows the plebs to communicate amongst themselves and this can not be tolerated otherwise they might start to realize how much they are being screwed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The Gate Keepers

“The internet allowed people to bypass the gatekeepers and possibly swung an election”

Exactly. The people were able to bypass the DNC controlled media and this is why we have cries for censorship. We must not allow people to see the truth or they will not vote the way the DNC wants them to vote.

People should look at which side is calling for censorship and question their motives. Fake news is not why Hillary lost the election. Fake news is why she would have won it. Wikileaks and independent blogs helped get the truth out and expose the corruption of the entire DNC, Hillary and the media.

Ninja (profile) says:

I can understand his idea. If you just ‘pout’ and don’t play you are just making it even harder for the people being oppressed. On the other hand we have a clearly censorious and fascist movement brewing in the West that could demand these tools be used where they are not intended to be. Complying with the law country by country seems a reasonable approach and it can fend off some of these totalitarian/extremist/moralist demands where there are strong freedom of speech laws but it won’t stop the brainless idiots out there from demanding the tools be it for pure grandstanding or because they are just idiots and believe it’s a good solution that won’t ever backfire.

I’m divided but I agree with him, it’s better to enable some speech than none. Still, Facebook is far from a beacon of free speech it likes to portrait itself as considering the everyday cases of censorship due to moral idiocy, copywrong and others…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Being sensable

“If you just ‘pout’ and don’t play you are just making it even harder for the people being oppressed.”

Hm hum.

Someone was gushing about President Elect Trump’s victory over “that blank blank blank B lank” and wasn’t is a great thing. I said I didn’t believe so, that they are all plutocrats with absolutely zero intention of helping someone like us and who you voted for only selected which set of billionaires were going to get richer.

For my trouble, I have several hematoma and 11,000 in medical bills. But it’s those nasty liberals that cause violence at Trump rallies.

Hm Hum.

So, to be sensible, I don’t say anything anymore and I go armed. Reality is that it doesn’t matter who occupies the white house, it’s the damn people that are the oppressors. Government is just along for the ride.

Padpaw (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: ... and I go armed.

save that most soldiers will not fire on their fellow citizens. They did a big test in the last few years and the generals that said they would not got fired by Obama, since he was in charge when they gave their soldiers the test.

So yes they outgun the citizens but if they don’t have anyone willing to use those guns its a moot point.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“I’m divided but I agree with him, it’s better to enable some speech than none”

Um, no. Propagating government propaganda isn’t doing anything to enable “some” speech. FB is in it for the money, not to help the people. Anything that helps a government continue to oppress their people should be avoided.

Anonymous Coward says:

“It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, according to employees.

Didn’t he say pretty much the same thing about Free Basics and his walled garden?

Lets cut the crap and recognise this for what it really is: an attempt to get more people so they can sell more ads. Facebook is a company, not a charity.

shanen (profile) says:

Broken economic models

How do you expect real news to compete with the fake stuff? The production costs are much higher, and fake news can even find its own best markets. At least the Macedonian kids are claiming that they focused on pro-Trump anti-Hillary fake stories because that’s what the suckers clicked on–and they just wanted the money from the viral clicks. People want to brainwash themselves, though the google calls it personalization and Facebook calls it “friends”.

There was a time when news was seen as a public service. The old newspaper model is more complicated, but in the radio days the monopoly on a frequency had to be justified with some public services, including news. That model was attacked by the Reaganauts, but completely crushed by the Web.

The two most “successful” economic models for news these days are disaster porn, as seen on CNN, and paid propaganda, as seen on FAUX “news”. In neither case are they interested in the production of well-informed and discerning citizens. There’s a difference in emphasis, however. The advertisers are more focused on your obedience to the toothpaste commercials, while the propagandists mostly want you to obey the political ads.

Anonymous Coward says:

The origins of Facebook and their new role in the world

Facebook started as a project to degrade women. Now Zuckerberg is a major Democratic supporter. So a major sexist supports the Dems; why isn’t this in the news? Oh wait, the answer is below.

Now Facebook is going to be used as a tool to sensor dissent. Dissent to the communist government of China or conservative dissent to the liberal agenda in the US. Funny how the Dems don’t like to talk about the problems in their party?

programvb.com/20 17/01/facebook-delete (profile) says:

algorithm that got people to go out and vote for Trump is both simplistic and dangerous” – lol! Oh my gosh this the first I’ve heard of it. I saw more anti-Trump news on my feed than the opposite, but probably because my “blue” friends were the ones passing it along. My “red” friends were very silent and said nothing about who they were endorsing. I did recognize that many of the mainstream news outlets were endorsing Hillary. I think overall media has been unbalanced. I do feel sad for my “lefties” out in Cali having meltdowns. The day after they were all seriously shocked, but I’ve lived out there in the Silicon Valley area. I know what’s its like. I’ve also been across the country and grew up in a rural area. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that its a big country. And yes there are different spheres of bubbles. You got to step outside of it to see what’s going

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