Bull Session

Facebook in China?

December 1, 2016          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we chat about Facebook’s new censorship tool, which features largely in the company’s attempts to get back into China. The software, among other things, will regulate what kind of content is allowed in the Facebook news feed. The Chinese government is particularly concerned about unfavorable news reports, on subjects from pollution to protest, that have the potential to go viral. While critics cry foul, Mark Zuckerberg’s response is that having some access to Facebook is better than none at all. Is this just a pragmatic view from Facebook, as it continues to grow its global user base? Join us as we discuss all this and more.

Facebook Said to Create Censorship Tool to Get Back Into China

Welcome to Episode 184 of The Digital Life, the show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings listeners.

For the podcast this week, we’ll be chatting about Facebook’s so called censorship tool which features largely in its attempts to get back into China. Facebook has not been allowed to compete for the Chinese market and of course Facebook with 1.7 billion users and quite a few investors is interested in continuing to grow so that it can continue to dominate the social media space.

Of course, in order to do that in China, they need to play by the rules of China which are vastly different from the rules of The United States and other countries where Facebook has such a stronghold. Is this a pragmatic view from Facebook, going into China and being part of that environment even if they can’t fully operate? Is Mark Zuckerberg trying to have his cake and eating too?

I’m not sure but according to Mr. Zuckerberg, some access to Facebook is better than none. Of course, the Chinese government is worried that all sorts of things will surface on Facebook and go viral, for instance, there are documentaries about pollution in China that maybe the Chinese government would be a little bit sensitive to. These are the sorts of things that once they are out there on Facebook in a Chinese instantiation of Facebook, it could be hard to close the door once the horse has come out of the barn.

Facebook is faced with this dilemma, do they provide the Chinese government or a partner Chinese company with a software tool to prevent certain news from surfacing on its platform? I think the answer is in order to play in China, that answer has to be yes. Dirk?

There’s so much to talk about here. It hurts my head. I don’t think we have enough time. Where to start? Mark’s contention that some Facebook is better than no Facebook, that’s really naughty, right? As I’ve grown older and thought about the world a lot from a philosophical perspective, I’ve thought about these things in different contexts. I’m less convinced, than ever that there’s such a thing as truth or objective truth, that it’s all perceptual. It’s all just I am a specific person with very uniquely specific context, you are a person with uniquely specific context and the reality is a consequence of that context and of who and where we are.

The point that I want to make with that is I’ve taken that to also then think about what is lying right? Because if you say there is no truth, lying becomes an interesting concept as well. A lot of the things that are “lying” are what we would say is lying by omission. What’s a good example? Obviously not a real one but I know that I robbed a bank and I don’t tell my wife, right? Most people would say, “Well, you were lying, you didn’t say you robbed a bank?”

Well no, I made a choice not to include that information in the things that I said. What Mark is saying is “Hey, some of the things out there is okay even though there are some things that have been omitted basically and are not available.” I think it depends on what you think about lying and think about the question of, as a person, Jon, as you and I talk, as we have lunch, we had lunch together today, during that launch I’m going to choose to tell you about certain things and choose to not tell you about other things.

Most of the things I don’t tell you about I’ve made some editorial decision because I think it’s not relevant. You won’t be interested in it you don’t need to hear it. There are some things that perhaps I made a choice not to say because I would be embarrassed or I think you would think badly of me. There’s lots of sort of decision points that get me to these are things that actually came out of my mouth while we were having lunch. Historically-

Now you got me wondering what you didn’t tell me at lunch.

I know right? Exactly, exactly.

You know, some Dirk is better than no Dirk.

Exactly, that’s it. That’s it. Historically, it’s almost just a gut check thing. When I say, “Hey, I didn’t tell my wife that I robbed a bank.” Somebody says, “Oh Jesus, I mean that’s a lie.” On the other hand, if I say, “Yeah, I didn’t, I didn’t tell my wife that um I put ketchup on my hot dog.” Nobody is going to consider that a lie right? Yet, they are really the same thing. They are me making some editorial choice of what I think is relevant to the other person or not.

From my perspective, it’s all lying in the way that we use lying as a filter for editing, right? There are some that are socially acceptable and some that are not, but it’s total gut check. It’s total lick your finger and put it in the air and whatever way you feel that the wind is blowing. This is very roundabout but now bringing it to Mark Zuckerberg’s contention, he’s saying, “Hey, having the platform there and having some amount of information that a big brother of some kind is restricting people from seeing, that, I’m sure for many of us with more liberal sensibilities, that’s going to get us upset. It flies against what we’ve been taught and what we believe.

At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s … I may not like it, I may wish the world wasn’t that way but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal in reality because there’s editing going on all over the place and we’re mad because it’s some apparatus of the Chinese government as opposed to it’s just Bob on Facebook who happened to put this thing up or that thing up. I get why people are conceptually upset by it but I think it’s really philosophical idealistic as opposed to practical.

Yeah, I think that’s a very interesting point there and I can definitely see how Mark Zuckerberg would like to have Facebook present in China because it does give the Chinese a platform for communication even if not all the news that we consume here in the west is available to them or whatever that slice of news may be.

It’s interesting because over the past year or so, we’ve really been exposed to a lot of different perspectives on what is news anyway and Facebook has just been embroiled in the “fake news” controversy which is more or less propaganda/I don’t know, the dark side of The Onion, right? No one believes that the Onion’s headlines are real, do they?

At any rate, there is a lot of questions about the news we consume and our perspective on it just because the internet does allow you to consume whatever news it is that you want. There’s been some commentary that the fake news was instrumental in helping president elect Trump get elected because it created all this uncertainty and doubt around Hilary’s honesty. Even if you knew that headline you were reading was not real, it made you think about what is she hiding there?

Which I guess is core to this argument. With the internet, we are subjected to a lot of things that frankly we would rather not know about. It’s interesting if you think about the ‘80s when we were in a much more limited bandwidth media environment. We effectively had, call it censorship, but it was by large media companies that were spoon feeding us the message that they wanted us to consume.

That’s right. That’s absolutely correct.

We had three channels on TV or whatever. Then suddenly you realize that this story is much larger, in fact, the story is a lot more prickly than you would like it to be. There are a lot of people doing awful stuff that you would rather not know about and that’s part of what the internet is. I don’t know if we’re looking for something for the benefit of the Chinese people to know that there’s all this additional mess that they don’t know about yet. At the same time, if there are rivers or air or land is getting polluted, I’m sure maybe the Chinese government is not really interested in having people know about that but I sure as hell would want to know that if that was in my backyard.

It’s tricky there. Ultimately, I do think it’s more correct to allow more information through but I can’t say that I am particularly pleased with the volume of information that we get from the internet, the quality of information that we get and what I’ve learned online, there’s been both good things and really rotten things. It’s a mixed bag at best.

Yeah. That’s true and it comes to one of the real pillars of this whole thing is we’re getting this mixed bag at best of information because there’s individuals and companies that are incentivized to send us whatever will make them the most money right? At the end of the day so much comes down to capitalism right?

With Facebook, with this example, the whole reason that Facebook exists, whether we like it or not, and honestly, I don’t like it, I’m anti-capitalist big time but, the reason Facebook exists is to maximize shareholder value. In the context of maximizing shareholder value, there’s no question what they should be doing. They should be trying to get into the Chinese market, monetizing that market, and making more money for the people who own those shares of stock.

Do I wish the world was not that way? I do. Is the world that way? It is. As such, Facebook are going to Facebook. If you have a problem, it’s at the level of capitalism. It shouldn’t be at the level of Facebook. Facebook is just participating in this broken freaking system. The other big pillar to look at from the standpoint of Facebook in China, is the notion of national sovereignty and national governments.

We liberal United States may not believe in the censorship, in the things that are going on in China. That may offend our sensibilities but China is a sovereign nation and unless we’re going to send in the troops and the bombs and it’s so important that everyone have the access that we’re going to conquer that nation, we have to respect what’s happening there to some degree.

There’s a lot of things happening there that don’t make me happy, that I wish we were in Utopia. I wish I could go there and wave my finger and have it go away but it doesn’t work that way. We are in a global environment with different nations, each of which have different beliefs. I think a lot of the Chinese beliefs are wrong. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t think I am but maybe I’m wrong.

Their nation, they can make their own decisions and rules and set that stuff up and look, do we want to be the policemen of the world or not? Now we’re really getting into … I’m talking about the United States here. We’re really getting into a bigger swath of things. It creates untold issues when we try and go in benevolently and impose our will, impose our values, impose our rule over other people, other nations.

To me this is all a big to do about nothing. It’s funny, I’m so liberal and yet I’m always hammering liberals but it’s true. Its’ all of this liberal angst for things that we shouldn’t be angsty about. If we’re angsty about anything, it should be freaking capitalism, right? If we’re angsty about anything it should be that there’s not a one-world government that is driven by liberal principles and holistic long-reaching thinking. Those are the things to be mad about, but the fact that some company is working within the system in the rules of the system the way it’s set up and engaging with a sovereign nation in ways that make me feel a little bit icky, but it’s just the freaking system. If you hate the system, let’s attack the system but for all the liberals to he up in arms about Facebook and standing on their soapboxes, I don’t have much respect or it to be honest.

Yeah, it will be very interesting to see how this plays out over the next couple weeks and months. Certainly, there’s an opportunity there for Facebook, much like other companies that have tried before though, there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually be able to make any of this work. Especially since they are going to have to work with an entity that’s trusted by the Chinese government. The opportunity is there for Facebook but let’s see if they can actually execute it.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. So, it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett that’s j-o-n f-o-l-l-e-t-t. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o dot com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thank you so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 184 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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