Kara Alaimo is assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She served as spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department in 2011-2012.
Facebook is said to have developed censorship software in an effort to make it politically possible to operate in China, where the government has blocked access to the social network since 2009. Yes, giving in to the demands of an undemocratic regime to obstruct free speech would set a dangerous precedent. And it could cause users in other nations to reject the platform. But if a restricted version of Facebook does launch in China, it could ultimately destabilize the Chinese Communist Party in three ways.
First, Chinese social media users currently communicate almost exclusively with one another. Because China blocks Western platforms, the Chinese use homegrown social channels — mainly Weibo and WeChat. But if they switch to Facebook, they will presumably be able to communicate with the nearly 1 in 3 people on Earth who use the platform around the globe. The distinction is crucial because past democracy movements have relied on partnerships with activists in outside states.
For example, the political scientist Daniel C. Thomas argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused by alliances between activists in the USSR and abroad. When people in the USSR couldn’t get their governments to meet their demands, they turned to citizens of the United States and Europe, who put pressure on their own leaders to insist that the USSR uphold human rights in international negotiations. Political scientists Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink call this strategy the “boomerang effect.” As the world’s largest social network, Facebook could be a powerful tool for fostering connections between activists in China and other nations for similar ends.
Second, Chinese citizens would almost certainly be able to evade censorship software to discuss sensitive topics on Facebook. Scholars report that users of China’s homegrown platforms widely criticize the government by using symbols, euphemisms and parodies in place of words that would trigger the attention of censors. But everyone knows what these users really are talking about.
In fact, researchers at Harvard find that content that is critical of the government is no more likely to be censored in China than any other content — even if it is “vitriolic.” What does trigger censorship is any effort to encourage social mobilizations.
But my study of how the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” was used to foment Egypt’s 2011 revolution finds that the same was initially true there, too. When Google executive Wael Ghonim first set up the page, he used it to share information that made Egyptians more critical of government policies — a process John Kingdon calls “softening.” Then, when the political climate was ripe — because Egyptians had just watched Tunisians topple their leader — Ghonim’s Facebook followers were prepared to move to the streets. Chinese activists could likewise use Facebook to “soften” their fellow citizens, leaving them better prepared to take advantage of a future opportunity for regime change.
The Chinese also currently use social platforms to share information on local protests, scandals and other events that the government attempts to suppress. Most famously, after the government falsely claimed in 2011 that the fatal collision of two high-speed trains in Wenzhou was caused by lightning — and then tried to literally cover up the wreckage by burying it — social media users shared photos of the incident and successfully demanded better answers from the government. Chinese social media users could likewise use Facebook to question their government, this time also reaching potential sympathizers and partners in other states. (English is widely taught in China, and Facebook’s auto-translate tool would also help overcome language differences.)
Finally, connecting with other Facebook users could allow the Chinese to see how people in other parts of the world live. This might be the most subversive part of all. After watching citizens of other countries lambaste their leaders, practice a plurality of religions and give birth to multiple children with impunity, the Chinese might demand to do the same.
Of course, the degree to which all three of these things would be possible would ultimately depend on the algorithm Facebook configured for the country. Internet freedom advocate Rebecca MacKinnon finds that China’s homegrown platforms use a range of sophisticated tactics to police dissent, including blocking and deleting posts, swapping problematic words with asterisks and triggering error messages when users try to post certain words. Online activism also comes with the threat of real-world punishment. However, evidence suggests that even an imperfect version of Facebook could be used to promote significant political opposition.
It’s unfortunate that the current political climate won’t allow for a perfect version of the platform to be used in China. But that doesn’t mean it is right to restrict the social network entirely, denying citizens a flawed Facebook that they could ultimately use to create a freer society.
In trying to convince concerned staffers why it’s ethical for Facebook to censor content to appease the Communist Party, the company’s chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, reportedly argued that “it’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation.” There’s reason to believe he’s right.