Is Facebook working on software to get past Great Firewall of China?

23 Nov 2016

Facebook is banned in China, but to access a market of 1.4bn people, how far is Facebook willing to go? Image: A Photo Story/Shutterstock

Facebook is believed to be working on software that will help it to accommodate the censorship demands of China.

Even though Facebook is reeling from a “fake news” controversy believed to have played a pivotal role in the recent US presidential elections, it is anxious to break into China where censorship is rife and services like Facebook and Google are banned.

The world’s biggest social media platform – which has 1.8bn users – is understood to have been quietly building software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas.

Three current workers and one former employee of Facebook revealed the development to The New York Times, stressing that not all software developed at Facebook surfaces.

It is understood that the social network does not intend to suppress the posts itself, but instead will rely on a third party (most likely in China) to monitor popular stories and topics and decide which posts should show up in users’ feeds.

Reaching China is a major goal for Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg has even learned to speak Mandarin.

China would provide Facebook with a potential market of 1.4bn people. However, the country also has a considerably evolved social media called WeChat and could prove a tough nut to crack for Facebook.

The platform is the medium

Facebook stands at an interesting crossroads, where it must decide if it is a technology platform or a media company.

This debate intensified in the aftermath of the shock victory of US president-elect Donald Trump, where the proliferation of outlandish fake news has been cited as a factor influencing voters’ decisions.

Initially, Zuckerberg dismissed these claims as “crazy”. But when he realised people weren’t buying into that, especially colleagues at Facebook, Zuckerberg revealed a seven-point plan to tackle the problem.

The plan includes easier reporting, third-party verification, quality of articles and disrupting fake news economics.

Zuckerberg said that fundamentally, Facebook needs to be careful not to discourage the sharing of opinions.

But if Facebook wants to crack China – a place where opinions aren’t encouraged – the problem could prove very complex indeed.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years