China Hits Back After Twitter and Facebook Block Pro-Beijing Content

August 22, 2019, 10:39 AM UTC

Chinese state media have begun to hit back at Twitter and Facebook for decisions to remove content and accounts that the social media giants believe are part of a coordinated propaganda push led by Beijing to discredit the protests in Hong Kong.

“Twitter and Facebook abused the freedom of the press when they chose to crack down on accounts originating from the Chinese mainland revealing violence in protests in Hong Kong,” a Wednesday op-ed in the state-run People’s Daily reads, claiming that the U.S. State Department uses Twitter as a tool to “interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”

“Such moves will only lead Twitter and Facebook toward becoming a political tool, or a victim [kidnapped] by politics, which drifts the two platforms further from being  a responsible public product,” said the Global Times, attributing the comment to a Beijing-based professor of politics and law.

Facebook deleted five accounts, seven pages and three groups for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” while Twitter suspended roughly 200,000 “spammy” accounts created to “sow political discord in Hong Kong” on Monday.

There’s an obvious irony to China’s state-run media lecturing on the sanctity of free speech, particularly in reference to the protests in Hong Kong. State media was initially prohibited from reporting on the events altogether and is now only allowed to follow the Party line, which denounces the protest movement as riots or acts of “near terrorism” instigated by foreign “black hands.”

Meanwhile, Beijing continues to pressure Hong Kong businesses into preventing staff from joining protests. Most notably, Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg resigned last week after Beijing reportedly demanded lists of staff involved in protests. Cathay staff have since been warned that their social media accounts will be scrutinized and could be punished for posts that show support for the protests.

No more state ads

Twitter on Monday also announced it would reject ads from “state-controlled news media entities.”

“Any affected accounts will be free to continue to use Twitter to engage in public conversation, just not our advertising products,” the platform said.

Even though Twitter is blocked in China, numerous state-owned media have Twitter accounts. Some Chinese press, such as state-owned Xinhua, use Twitter’s promoted content feature to boost their coverage of the protests in Hong Kong. Twitter claims the decision to ban state media ads is separate from its suspension of the Chinese spam network, and the ban doesn’t only apply to Chinese state media.

Foreign Ministry v. Facebook

At a regular press conference on Tuesday, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined to comment on Twitter’s actions but questioned why reports from Chinese state-run media should be considered “negative or wrong.”

“It is understandable for Chinese media to use overseas social media to elaborate on China’s policy and tell China’s story… I wonder why certain companies or people would have such strong reactions. Did it somehow hit their soft spot?” Geng said.

Geng went on to say, “We would like to see foreign Internet companies share in the opportunities offered by [China’s Internet] market, but the prerequisite is that they must abide by Chinese laws and regulations and respect the Chinese people’s feelings.”

For “respect the Chinese people’s feelings” read: “follow Beijing’s diktats.”

Geng’s reference to foreign Internet companies entering the Chinese market could be seen as a veiled threat to Facebook which, despite also being banned in China, rakes in $5 billion in advertising from China, according to Pivotal Research Group. That’s equivalent to 10% of the company’s total advertising revenue last year.

However, it’s more likely that Geng’s words don’t hold that kind of weight. Facebook’s network of 2.4 billion users makes it a vital advertising tool for Chinese companies selling overseas—that’s why they spend $5 billion a year on it. Beijing won’t convince them to stop for the sake of the five deleted Facebook accounts.

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