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Will American Social Media Giants Censor China?

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Will American Social Media Giants Censor China?

By Nick Fouriezos


There's growing political pressure on U.S. social media giants to target Chinese state-sponsored misinformation initiatives, ahead of the 2020 elections.

By Nick Fouriezos

  • A growing misinformation war between the U.S. and China is leading to pressure on social media platforms to act against fake or misleading claims by Chinese officials.
  • With elections on the horizon, this pressure is expected to grow — from both Republicans and Democrats.

Major social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, are banned in mainland China. Yet, in early March, one of the most explosive accusations amid the COVID-19 pandemic — that the U.S. Army had allegedly brought the coronavirus to Wuhan — came from a major Chinese official over Twitter. “US owe us an explanation!” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson at China’s foreign ministry, tweeted out in an unsubstantiated broadside that received more than 15,000 likes and nearly 12,000 retweets.

The episode revealed more than China’s hypocrisy on platforms such as Twitter — barred for ordinary citizens but used for propaganda and online bullying by officials and state-backed trolls. It also highlighted the escalating misinformation war being waged between the U.S. on the one hand and its adversaries on the other. And while American social media giants have so far largely faced criticism for failing to stop Russia’s online campaigns, including its interference in the 2016 elections, they’re now coming under growing pressure to act against misuse by Chinese officials. President Donald Trump has threatened to ban TikTok, the world’s fastest-growing social app owned by Chinese firm ByteDance. Microsoft is in talks to buy the American arm of TikTok.

At a time when neither party wants to risk being seen as weak against China, this growing scrutiny on social media platforms could come not just from Republican leaders and the Trump administration, but from Democrats too.

Since Zhao’s tweet:

  • In March, China’s state-sponsored international TV network CGTN posted an Arabic YouTube video suggesting that the virus had American origins.
  • In April, the People’s Daily suggested on Facebook that a restarted avian influenza experiment may have led to the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • That same month, the Chinese ambassador’s office in France tweeted an animation that used Lego figures to lampoon the U.S. response and suggest China had tried to warn America of the virus’ looming threat.

None of those claims is backed by any evidence. But China’s efforts haven’t only been aimed at the United States. In June, Twitter took down 150,000 fake accounts created by the Chinese government to defend its clampdown on Hong Kong protesters. And amid tensions at the Himalayan border between China and India later in the month, Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the state-backed Global Times, ominously warned India. “Don’t mess with the PLA,” he tweeted, referring to the Chinese armed forces, “otherwise they will teach you a heavier lesson.”

The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee has started tracking these propaganda efforts, and is even releasing report cards grading Twitter, Facebook and YouTube on how well they are combating such misinformation from foreign actors. The former has received a D-, while YouTube got a C- and Facebook a C+.

The Chinese Communist Party is abusing our First Amendment right, so I think social media companies have a responsibility.

Rep. Michael McCaul, House Foreign Affairs Committee

Four months before the elections, that scrutiny will only rise. The pressure is showing — in May, two months after the initial posts, Twitter added fact-check tags to Zhao’s controversial tweets.

“I support free speech, but the Chinese Communist Party is abusing our First Amendment right, so I think social media companies have a responsibility,” says the committee’s lead Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul. “They should not allow their platforms to be used by our foreign adversaries to propagate falsehoods against the United States.”

To be sure, American officials, including President Donald Trump, have repeatedly used platforms like Twitter and Facebook to spread misinformation. Trump’s tweets about COVID-19 in particular have been particularly dangerous, urging states to reopen faster than health officials were recommending and likely leading to higher infection and death rates. He has also used social media to question the viability of mail-in voting without proof. And he and his top officials have insinuated that the coronavirus was spread deliberately by China, even though there is zero evidence to suggest the virus emerged from a lab. Finally, this summer, Twitter and Facebook removed a doctored video he used to decry CNN as “fake news.”

“China is an easy punching bag, there’s no doubt about it. And you gain a lot of political points for that,” says Nancy Snow, a professor of public policy at Kyoto University in Japan and author of Propaganda, Inc. and Information War, scholarly books on America’s global influence campaigns. Snow argues that the U.S. is often also guilty of selectively broadcasting facts to further its goals through propaganda. “We don’t call it that: We have euphemisms,” she says.

Still, the politics of the moment in the U.S. help the conservative argument: Now that social media giants are willing to more aggressively fact-check, and even censor, the American president, shouldn’t they go one step further and actually take down demonstrably false information from Chinese officials? “The idea that they couldn’t even take down the one tweet from a foreign adversary that said the U.S. military was in some way responsible for coronavirus speaks volumes,” McCaul says.

Nor is Trump alone. Facebook has deleted a post by Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro after he claimed that “hydroxychloroquine is working in all places,” despite research contradicting that assertion.

Before they acted against Trump, social media companies had aggressively fought to be seen as neutral arbiters of the web. Now, avoiding pressure to similarly target others — especially foreign players — will be difficult. And the focus will be squarely on posts and accounts from China.

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