WUZHEN, China — Outraged Americans are calling on tech companies to crack down on “fake news” — a call that is echoing a world away at a Chinese Communist Party-backed conference on the future of the Internet.
In the week since Donald Trump triumphed in the U.S. presidential race, Internet companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter have been accused by some of bolstering his rise by giving people a platform to spread fabrications packaged as valid news reporting. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg initially brushed off the criticism, saying that "99 percent of what people see is authentic.” He soon changed course, deciding, alongside Google, to stop some of the worst offenders from making money off ads.
The debate about social media’s role in Trump’s rise and the question of policing online content resonated at this week's World Internet Summit, a bizarre event where Chinese censors mixed with Cambodia’s prime minister and a smattering of American tech executives at a resort outside Shanghai.
The summit, now in its third year, is an expensive effort to spread an alternate vision for the Internet. California-types talk about “connectivity” and imagine a borderless world. President Xi Jinping prefers to talk about “cyber sovereignty,” an Internet where each country controls a slice of the web.
As the architects of the Great Firewall, the system of censorship that controls what the country's 700 million Internet users read and see, China’s leaders are longtime advocates of a web where the state provides “security,” vetting what content is and is not safe.
It is not “safe” for people in China to use Google’s search engine, for instance. Nor can they download the Facebook app. Searching for information about the wealth of certain Chinese political figures — and hundreds of other things — is also out of bounds.
And it’s not just blocking sites and search terms. The Chinese Communist Party sees social media as a threat to social stability and worries that citizens connecting online could lead to “color revolutions” or mass unrest.
Chinese Internet companies are asked to hire in-house censors to vet posts on mirco-blogging platforms such as Weibo and chat services such as Weixin. On these and other platforms, there are periodic crackdowns on “fake news” and “rumor-mongering” — all in the name of protecting the public good.
“It is forbidden to use hearsay to create news or use conjecture and imagination to distort the facts,” read a July 2016 missive from the Cyberspace Administration of China.
American officials and companies have been vocal critics of China’s paternalistic web policing, calling the Great Firewall a barrier to trade and a violation of human rights. On the eve of the conference in Wuzhen, Amnesty International urged U.S. companies such as Facebook to “resist China’s Orwellian vision of the Internet.”
To be clear, the United States is far from adopting China’s vision of the Internet — or anything close. Blocking purveyors of “fake news” is different than blocking entire websites and search terms, or criminalizing dissent.
But it was striking to see how what’s happening in America became a focus at the Wuzhen conference. Over two days of speeches, several people referenced Trump’s rise as evidence of why the Internet must be more tightly controlled.
On day one, Robin Li, founder of Baidu, shared his thoughts on Trump. He was not, like many Americans, surprised by Trump’s victory, Li said. The nature of the Internet, particularly social media, made his rise “inevitable.”
Li said Trump, unlike Clinton, understood that “conspiracy” and “extreme emotional expression” thrive online. Now U.S. tech and media have learned they need to step in, he said.
Fear of an unbridled Internet ran deep in Wuzhen. While Facebook VP Vaughan Smith delivered a peppy talk on artificial intelligence in one room, another group gathered to discuss “cyberterrorism,” blaming social media for the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Kam Chow Wong, a former Hong Kong police officer who now teaches criminal justice at Cincinnati’s Xavier University, used words like “extremism” to describe student activism in the Chinese Special Administrative Region.
He said authorities need to do more to control social media. “If you regulate in an appropriate manner, it will make it more useful, then it will be more free.”
“I don’t think anybody knows why Trump won, but it's a good move that the U.S. is trying to regulate social media; it’s overdue.”
Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.