As antitrust regulators and members of Congress trained their sights on tech companies last year, Mark Zuckerberg reached for the ultimate rhetorical shield in Washington today: China. Before a congressional panel in August, the Facebook CEO made sure to dispel any confusion about where his loyalties lie. “Facebook is a proudly American company,” he declared, leaving his audience to determine whether he was speaking genuinely or offering a cynical talking point to get out of a jam.
We now have a clearer answer. Earlier this week, Peter Thiel — the firebrand billionaire, Palantir co-founder, one-time Trump ally, and Facebook investor — undercut Zuckerberg’s effort to wrap himself in the American flag. Speaking at the Nixon Foundation’s seminar on foreign policy, a monthly gathering of former Trump officials convened by Mike Pompeo and Robert O’Brien, Thiel explained that “the woke politics inside these companies” prevented them from viewing themselves as American.
Although Thiel’s remarks to the group about Bitcoin made headlines this week, an important disclosure about Facebook’s internal dynamics flew under the radar, and it shows why, absent significant reform, Zuckerberg’s talk about standing up to the Chinese Communist Party will remain hollow.
During the mass demonstrations in Hong Kong over a year ago, Thiel said:
Employees from Hong Kong were all in favor of the protests and free speech. But there were more employees at Facebook who were born in China than who were born in Hong Kong. And the Chinese nationals actually said that it was just Western arrogance and we shouldn’t be taking Hong Kong’s side, and things like that. And then the rest of the employees at Facebook sort of stayed out of it. But the internal debate felt like people were actually more anti-Hong Kong than pro-Hong Kong.
It seems that since then, the internal schisms within Facebook have only intensified.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, one employee took to an internal Facebook discussion group to call for a stronger effort to fight disinformation about the Uyghur genocide on the platform. But although a senior executive responded, promising to look into the matter, no concrete change seems to have materialized yet. Chinese-government and state-media accounts continue to share false posts whitewashing the CCP’s conduct toward the Uyghurs and outright denying key evidence of the atrocities.
Facebook’s not the only platform facing a deluge of CCP disinformation concerning everything from Hong Kong to the Uyghur genocide. Since 2019, Chinese-state accounts on Facebook and Twitter have approached their disinformation efforts with new zeal, according to an analysis released last month by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI): “Since the end of 2019, there’s been an increase in the use of Facebook and Twitter accounts by Chinese Government and state media to push alternative narratives and disinformation about the situation.”
It should come as no surprise that these posts focus on pushing false data about minority birthrates in Xinjiang, the region at the center of the genocide, as part of an effort to hide the forced-sterilization campaign Uyghurs are being subjected to there. Especially in the aftermath of the acrimonious U.S.–China summit meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, last month and a multilateral sanctions campaign undertaken in response to the genocide, CCP-linked accounts have routinely spread cringe-inducing false equivalences between the Party’s mass atrocities and historical Western wrongs, such as slavery and the Holocaust. (It seems not to have occurred to the CCP that comparing the Xinjiang campaign to other countries’ historical atrocities constituted an implicit admission that the Uyghurs are being subjected to atrocities, too.)
It’s easy to view the Party’s awkward social-media posts as a bizarre thing to laugh off — after all, what normal person would take a transparently brutal regime’s online musings seriously? But failing to address Beijing’s propaganda on U.S. platforms makes it easier for the CCP to spread its message. Though China’s spin might not convince an American audience, social-media platforms still constitute a megaphone capable of granting plausible deniability to foreign officials seeking an excuse to turn a blind eye to the CCP’s activities.
It’s not as though Facebook has done nothing about the Party’s attempts to weaponize the global platform, which includes over 2 billion users and is banned in China (though it brings in $5 billion per year from advertisers in the country). Last year, it announced that it would label “state-controlled media” pages, and more recently, it took down accounts involved in hacking Uyghur dissidents.
For its part, Twitter has also started to label government and media accounts sponsored by the five permanent U.N. Security Council countries, of which China is one. In January, it took down a post by the Chinese embassy in the United States that labeled Uyghur women “baby-making machines” whom the CCP had “emancipated” from extremism and affixed fact-check notices to a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s assertions that COVID originated in the United States. On Thursday, it even launched a special emoji for the hashtag MilkTeaAlliance, the transnational cohort of pro-democracy activists across Asia, in a move hailed by human-rights defenders.
But neither company’s policies are foolproof. When National Review looked this week, the Facebook page for T-House — an off-shoot of Chinese state broadcaster CGTN styled to resemble a buzzy Western social-media news site — didn’t have a state-media label. And, crucially, as the ASPI report points out, pro-Beijing talking points are often laundered through other sources, including fringe media outlets that are friendly to but not directly sponsored by the CCP.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Lijian Zhao, hasn’t been cowed by Twitter’s fact check. On Thursday, he again tweeted misleading information about COVID’s origins. And by the count of one researcher, some 150 other Chinese Foreign Ministry officials and diplomatic missions maintain Twitter accounts. The frequency of these accounts’ tweets varies, as does the degree to which they spread false Chinese talking points on human-rights abuses. But the posts of those that are active regularly garner hundreds of likes and retweets.
The good news is that ASPI says the amount of content on the website critical of the CCP’s conduct in Xinjiang recently surpassed the amount of content supportive of it. But until Facebook and Twitter ban accounts with clear CCP links, the party-state will continue to have free rein to assert its legitimacy before an international audience. And that is a state of affairs no “proudly American company” would uphold.