In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to protect free speech. But his platform, the largest and most influential social network in the world, regularly clamps down on free speech on behalf of authoritarian regimes.
Facebook’s growth is slowing. It needs new markets and new audiences, which is why it is making a big push into foreign countries. However, some of these countries aren’t happy with the idea of letting their citizens have access to free-speech friendly platforms, and impose conditions on Facebook’s operations within their borders.
So, does Zuckerberg’s stated commitment to free speech trump the company’s need to enter markets controlled by authoritarian, censorious governments? Readers can examine the following five examples, and judge for themselves.
Facebook was banned from China following riots in 2009 in Ürümqi and revelations that the Xinjiang independence activists behind the riots used the social network to organize. Facebook has been desperate to re-enter China’s massive market ever since.
Mark Zuckerberg has met with Chinese president Xi Jinping as well as Chinese propaganda chief Liu Yunshan. The Facebook CEO has even learned Mandarin and delivered speeches (albeit “clumsy” ones, according to Quartz) in the language during his multiple trips to China. According to reports, Zuckerberg even asked the Chinese president to name his baby during a meeting at the White House, although the president refused.
But Facebook has done more than cosy up to Chinese officials. According to reports, they are also building a censorship tool to block banned news sources in China from users’ timelines. Several Facebook employees have quit in protest at the development of the tool, which will reportedly give third parties – like ISPs and governments – the power to suppress posts.
Then again, Facebook is competing with domestic Chinese social networks, which pride themselves on blocking what they call “fake news…”
Turkey frequently censors its citizens on the internet. During the coup attempt against President Erdogan last year, all social media was blacked out across the country. Just last month, Turkey blocked access to Wikipedia.
Facebook has been working with Turkey to censor Kurdish militia in northern Syria. Although these groups are largely credited with rolling back the frontiers of the Islamic State, they are considered terrorists by Turkey, an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that has staged attacks inside the country. Turkey is even accused of allowing ISIS fighters to cross its southern border to fight the Kurds.
A document leaked in 2012 revealed even more censorship on behalf of Turkey: according to guidelines on “IP blocks and international compliance” given to an external Facebook contractor, moderators were told to consider a wide range of Turkey-critical content to be an “abuse standards violation.” These included attacks on Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, maps of Kurdistan, images depicting the burning of the Turkish flag, and any content related to Abdullah Ocalan, the most influential leader of the Kurdish independence movement.
Pakistan, also known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, is currently undertaking a massive crackdown against what it describes as “social media blasphemy.” The state recently sent out a text message to millions of Pakistanis urging them to report their fellow citizens if they suspect them of “blasphemous” posting, effectively encouraging a citizen-led religious Stasi.
Much of the citizenry will be happy to oblige. Indeed, some Pakistanis would like to go beyond simply reporting blasphemers:
— Shahjahan Khurram (@91Shahji) April 21, 2017
Pakistan has asked Facebook for help identifying blasphemers on social media — even those outside the country, so it can pursue their extradition. Facebook has not denied complying with the request, instead saying that the company “reviews all government requests carefully, ‘with the goal of protecting the privacy and rights of our users.'”
What is known is that Facebook has dispatched a delegation to Pakistan to address the government’s concerns. Moreover, government officials have claimed that the company has helped them remove “85 of blasphemous material” on Facebook. This would make Facebook complicit in Pakistan’s determination to quash religious dissent from its citizens, which includes a potential death penalty for the crime of blasphemy.
The media is determined to find evidence of collusion between President Trump and Russia, but there is considerably more evidence to be found of Facebook doing the bidding of the Russian government, which is frightening the social network by threatening to ban it from the country.
The pressure seems to have paid off – in 2014, Facebook blocked a page supporting Alexei Navalny, described by the Washington Post as “Putin’s biggest critic.”
5. Germany and the European Union
Not all authoritarian countries are non-western. In response to the migrant crisis and the subsequent crime and terrorism wave sweeping Europe, Germany has taken a keen interest in scrubbing criticism of their catastrophic mass migration policies from social media. German police have even raided homes over alleged “Facebook hate speech,” and one couple was taken to court and sentenced for criticizing mass migration on the platform.
In September 2015, German chancellor Angela Merkel was overheard asking Mark Zuckerberg if he was “working” on clamping down against allegedly “hateful” content on the platform, to which Zuckerberg replied “yeah.” The German government has also threatened to fine Facebook if it does not clamp down on “fake news,” while the European Union has threatened “non-legislative action” if social networks like Facebook and YouTube do not tackle “hate speech’ on their platforms.
Zuckerberg was true to his word. Following his overheard discussion with Merkel, Facebook has signed up to an E.U. pledge to suppress “illegal hate speech” and use their power to promote “counter-narratives.” Facebook also launched its own “Initiative for Civil Courage Online,” a Europe-wide campaign to clamp down on alleged “hate speech” during the migrant crisis. In just one month alone in September 2016, Facebook deleted over 100,000 posts in Germany for containing “hate” – a figure that was attacked by the German government as too low.
Mark Zuckerberg is a strong supporter of Angela Merkel’s refugee policies, and has called on the U.S. to “follow their lead.”