Facebook & The Hong Kong-Taiwan-China Triangle

Facebook has come under fire in recent weeks after posts related to Hong Kong published by news agencies and users within Taiwan were taken down by the social media platform. During the later hours of the 15th on Friday, Facebook issued an official statement announcing posts were removed due only to a technical problem, and not as a result of their content. It cannot be confirmed whether posts related to Hong Kong continue to be affected, or if original posts affected have been re-published. Furthermore, Facebook and Google have developed divergent strategies to manage the spread of disinformation ahead of Taiwanese elections that will be held in January next year.

On 13th November, Google announced it would impose a temporary ban on political campaign ads within Taiwan from 15th November to 17th January, applicable to all candidates running for office. In contrast, Facebook continues to allow paid political ads within Taiwan, instead introducing strict criteria forcing those seeking to run political ads to confirm their identity, where funds have come from to pay for the ad, and provide a person or organization’s name that will appear in a “Paid for by” disclaimer.

News agencies affected by Facebook’s temporary glitch targeting posts related to Hong Kong within Taiwan included Mirror Media, The Storm Media and Newtalk.

Ketagalan Media reported via Twitter, “Multiple people in Taiwan are reporting a systematic removal of their posts on Hong Kong and Taiwan, by Facebook @facebook,” with multiple other Taiwanese Twitter users making similar complaints.

Momentum from protests in Hong Kong against unification with the Republic of China has become a prominent feature in electoral campaigns in Taiwan, with Beijing backing Han Kuo-yu, leader of the opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT), which historically accepts Taiwan and China as part of the same country. A program aired by America’s National Public Radio hosted Wen-Tsong Chiou, the president of Taiwan Democracy Watch. Wen-Tsong detailed the unfolding situation in Hong Kong as a precursory experiment for Taiwan to base its defence mechanism against the One-China policy being pushed by China: “They [Taiwan’s politicized youth] are testing the solutions–how to handle this type of demonstration in a democracy. They are learning from Hong Kong.”

Since allegations were made against Russia detailing the use of fake social media accounts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. elections, social media platforms have come under intense pressure to root out the spread of political disinformation. This scenario is very much applicable in the ongoing power struggle between China and Hong Kong as well as China and Taiwan. Facebook has vowed to protect Taiwan’s election against the threat of fake news on their social media platform; however, recent efforts have fallen short to accomplish this and call into question where Facebook stands on the issue.

Whether actions were intentional or not, the censorship of posts on Hong Kong in Taiwan and the ongoing permission to post political campaign ads in the lead up to elections each favour the People’s Republic of China. The censorship of Facebook posts relating to Hong Kong within Taiwan, accidental or not, inadvertently censors cross-communication and information-sharing between respective movements against unification within Hong Kong and Taiwan, causing social media users in Taiwan to question whether such actions were ordered by Beijing.

A report conducted by V-Dem, an institute of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden responsible for the analysis of democracies, identified Taiwan as the country most affected by the spread of political disinformation, revealing it is a victim to more than tens of millions of cyberattacks orchestrated by China a month. Facebook’s inability to ban political ad campaigns in the lead up to Taiwan elections only makes Taiwan more vulnerable to such attacks.

While Facebook is banned in China, the relationship between the social media giant and rising superpower can be described as cooperative. The New York Times (NYT) revealed in 2016 that Facebook had developed software for China that would allow a third party, likely a partner Chinese company, to suppress posts from appearing in specific geographic areas. Furthermore, in February 2019, the NYT revealed that in the Southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, a company, Meet Social, had been set up under Facebook’s guidance hosting prospective business clients that wanted to advertise on Facebook to reach users outside of China. Despite Facebook not been available for use within China, through Meet Social, Pivotal Research Group reported that Facebook’s advertising revenue from China amounted to approximately $5 billion in 2018.

Opportunity for business must not take precedence over the maintenance of freedom of speech or the right to political sovereignty. Facebook has a social responsibility to uphold these values within Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Katherine Everest