Facebook recently developed software to censor posts on its news feed in an attempt to appeal to China, a market where the social network has previously been blocked. The software will prevent content from entering feeds altogether, instead of blocking content the way Facebook does in countries such as Pakistan, Russia and Turkey.
Facebook itself does not intend to censor content. They will instead give the software to a third-party—most likely a partner Chinese company—to monitor what shows up on feeds. The partner that receives the software will have complete control over what shows up on users’ feeds.
Although the software may never be utilized, it shows Facebook’s desire to gain access to the Chinese market, which houses 1.4 billion people.
In light of recent controversy over false news articles after the presidential election, Facebook must consider whether or not it should censor material. With this software now available, questions arise over whether it could also be used to arbitrate fake news in the United States. Jeremy Goldkorn, an expert in Chinese media culture, talked about the key differences and similarities between fake news and censorship.
Goldkorn mentioned that in China, the difference between fake news and censorship is nonexistent. China handles fake news by setting up keyword filters so that companies’ servers can go through every post to identify false information. They also hire people to read online information to catch what the servers missed.
“I don’t think you can split fake news and censorship apart in China. The function of these two methods could be used in both ways,” Goldkorn told Forbes Asia. “I don’t think you can compare the U.S. fake news problem to China’s. It requires something new to happen to tackle this problem here.”
This software may be the “something new” needed to handle the issue of fake news in the United States.
At this point, some technology policy officials in China have been willing to consider the idea of Facebook existing within the country.
One of the benefits would be that the social media network would give China a tool for easily tracking problematic political opinions. However, there are still many dissenting opinions on Facebook’s possible entry.
One major problem that the Silicon Valley company faces is competition. Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat offers similar services to that of Facebook. With 800 million monthly active users, it is not far from being as big as Zuckerberg’s company. Tencent handles fake news well by establishing channels on websites or hotlines to deal with misinformation. It also has a rumor filter account on its WeChat platform to help users better identify misinformation with a central focus on health, science and social topics.
Over the years, China and Facebook have had talks about the social media network entering the Chinese market, but a conclusion was never reached. Facebook’s best bet would be to follow models that other internet companies follow, as well as find a local partner or investor. A partner, especially one with experienced handling communication within the country, would take the weight of censorship off Facebook.
In any case, content censorship would have to be a precondition for entry into China and, in no way, the deciding factor. For Facebook, however, this software initiative is a step toward accessing one of the largest untapped global markets.