Debate continues to simmer over the threats of "fake news' and the civic and journalistic responsibilities of the world's largest and most powerful social media platform. What does state censorship in China have to do with all of that? We asked ourselves that very question.
January 17, 2018*
It was a handshake nine years in the making.
Amid a mass of red and blue banners — with Facebook's mission "Making The World More Open And Connected" written in big white letters — Mark Zuckerberg and Ren Xianliang, China's deputy head of cyberspace administration, sealed a long-awaited agreement in front of a pulsating crowd of students at Tsinghua University. Having been summarily banned from China in 2009, Facebook was finally re-entering the Chinese market after authorities deemed Facebook's content-suppression software to be in full compliance with the country's censorship laws.
"We are very happy that Facebook and China are restoring the world's faith in the digital space, by making sure that all online issues are related to reality," Ren declared before the well-orchestrated event, an odd blend of news conference and university pep rally.
Zuckerberg said he was excited to see where 750 million Chinese users would take Facebook's community. He ended with a salutation in Mandarin, earning a foot-stomping ovation.
With all the smiles at Tsinghua, it was easy to forget how resistant China had been to Facebook's attempts to enter its booming online market. The ban had come swiftly after independence activists in the Xinjiang region used the social media platform for internal communications. In the years that followed, and despite numerous visits by Zuckerberg, the Beijing authorities remained unyielding in refusing Facebook's entry past the so-called Great Firewall of China.
The key to reverse the situation first came in 2016 when Facebook began quietly developing a news-filtering software that had the potential to satisfy China's censorship demands. That project initially provoked controversy, but Donald Trump's election and the furore around fake news became just the smokescreen the social media giant needed to make its Chinese dream a reality.
Fake News' ascent
Following Trump's surprise victory, fake news quickly had become the phrase of the moment, following a falsehoods zeitgeist that prompted the Oxford Dictionary to select "post-truth" as its word of the year in 2016. Stories ranging from Pope Francis endorsing Trump for the presidency to Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS sprung up on people's news feeds in the weeks before the U.S. election.
Political leaders, newspaper editors and tech companies alike expressed concern about the risks that fabricated stories could pose for democracy. Clinton supporters blamed the phenomenon for her loss. Trump, meanwhile, assigned the fake news label to virtually any criticism of him that appeared in the media, making sure to hold on to the "k" in "fake" for extra theatrics.
Initially, Facebook had strongly resisted the idea that it should accept editorial responsibility for the content published on its platform; it was fearful of the costs and the extra regulation this could mean. But under intense public pressure — and a German bill that proposed up to a 500,000-euro fine per fake article — the company began to take steps to demonstrate it was acting against the truly and blatantly made-up stories. In January 2017, after a series of false reports targeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel surfaced on social media, the company released a fake news-filtering mechanism that allowed users to report articles as fake.
The system sent articles flagged by a sufficient number of users to Correctiv, a third-party fact-checking nonprofit staffed by investigative journalists who would work to determine the content's validity. Stories found to be false were then marked as "disputed" and placed under a restriction by Facebook's news feed algorithm, with a warning sent to users who chose to share them.
The U.S. version of the system arrived in May, with the fact checking delegated to major American news outlets as well as nonprofits. The Associated Press, ABC News, PolitiFact and Snopes signed on. The initiative earned early praise, with Facebook credited for a bold response to counter the post-truth age.
Chinese officials quickly began labeling articles critical of their rule "假新闻": fake news.
But after that initial enthusiasm, the new system quickly took a different turn. A number of the news outlets signed on to fact-check began to lose interest: Up against the armies of trolls, the value of experienced reporters dedicating their time to debunking often obviously absurd pieces seemed questionable amid ever-shrinking newsroom budgets. At the same time, users and media commentators asked why Facebook wasn't simply removing the posts automatically.
But the controversy took on an entirely different dimension when people realized the tool that would allow this already existed: in China.
The mechanism built for China, unlike the U.S. version, did away with the flaggers and fact-checkers and simply deleted posts based on keyword analysis. Facebook was not responsible for choosing which posts were removed — that was handed to a third-party company, which set the keywords.
China almost immediately saw that the frenzy over fake news in Western democracies was an opportunity to expand censorship over their country's online activity. Chinese officials soon began labeling articles critical of their rule "假新闻": fake news.
From propaganda to censorship
The blurring of debunking and censorship happened quickly. Facebook had already had a long history of generally obeying foreign governments' requests to suppress access to content: Between July and December 2015, the company blocked as many as 55,000 pieces of content in about 20 countries. But the new content-suppression mechanism became a faster and far more effective tool for authoritarian governments. Whereas previously the authorities had to make requests, their flaggers and supporters could now do the job for them.
In April 2016, Turkey became the first country to use the content-suppression software to not just restrict circulation and flag stories but also to remove content altogether. Articles deemed "insulting to the president" or to "Turkish identity" often evaporated from Facebook. Zeynep Gülec, a self-exiled former reporter for the newspaper Hürriyet, published an open letter in which she said "fighting for media freedom in Turkey was always hard, but with Facebook's new tool it has become impossible."
China, for its part, accepted Facebook's opening to its market after delegating the fact-checking responsibility to Zhenli, a newly created Chinese company based in Beijing linked to senior Communist officials and staffed by veterans of state-run news agencies.
Back at home
Back in the U.S., the effects of Facebook's content filtering were less monolithic but no less momentous. The rollout of the system met with a fierce public backlash and a joint letter from the editors-in-chief of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and more than 50 other daily newspapers, giving Zuckerberg a lesson about both the U.S. First Amendment and the costs of playing ball with the Beijing regime.
A faster and far more effective tool for authoritarian governments.
Facebook, which had hired an editorial staff to help manage the filtering, became the focus of intense partisan criticism, particularly from Republicans who said the mechanism was "rigged." President Trump, for his part, railed against the "pathetic fact-checkers' and "Mark Zuckercrook". Democrats also attacked the mechanism after a series of embarrassing deletions of ironic posts and those examining troubling issues, such as gun violence and pedophilia. The civil liberties group ACLU filed several suits against the Palo Alto platform for limiting free speech, even when it is false.
Meanwhile, despite the 700 million potential users in China, the development of the past six months that matters most to Mark Zuckerberg is rooted in the U.S., where more and more of the most extreme users on both sides of the political spectrum have begun deleting their Facebook accounts, passing their time instead on two brand new alternative social media platforms that avoided any filtering. Their names, perhaps unsurprisingly, are Rightbook and Leftbook.
With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.
CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.
Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.
It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.
Abundant sunshine, low temperatures
The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.
Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.
It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.
Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park
Chinese want to expand
The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.
The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.
The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.
The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.
- Green Is Ugly: Style Problems Plague Clean Energy Push ... ›
- Solar Power: Researchers Map Out Colombia's Sunshine Hotspots ... ›
- EVs Start Moving Latin American Cities To Sustainability ... ›