Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey deserve strong praise for their path-breaking and material support to freedom of speech and democracy on Aug. 19.
With billions of dollars in ad revenue at stake, Twitter courageously rooted out Chinese state influence on its site, including through the removal of a network of over 200,000 spammy China-backed accounts, and the banning of advertising from China’s state media. The ad ban will take effect in one month.
Many of the cancelled accounts were fake and coordinated against the democracy protests in Hong Kong. Acting on a tip from Twitter, Facebook followed suit by removing 15 Chinese state-backed pages, accounts and groups that targeted the protests.
Twitter’s moral stand and leadership has already given a boost to the social media company’s popularity among politically-savvy users. The markets have noticed. Twitter shares rose 2.8 percent on the news, while Facebook was up 1.3 percent. This week, doing right is doing well, especially for Twitter. The company deserves increased support from those of us who place a high value on democracy and human rights.
Ban on state media advertising
The ad ban “will not apply to taxpayer-funded entities, including independent public broadcasters,” according to Twitter. That will allow editorially-independent media in democracies, like the BBC, NPR, and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, to continue advertising.
The ban will only apply to “news media entities that are either financially or editorially controlled by the state,” Twitter wrote in its statement. Twitter utilized press freedom data for targeting its new ad policy from Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the European Journalism Centre, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and UNESCO.
“We will be making policy determinations on the basis of critical issues of media freedom and independence, such as control of editorial content, financial ownership, influence or interference over broadcasters, editors, and journalists, direct and indirect exertion of political pressure, and/or control over the production and distribution process,” Twitter stated.
The official reaction from China was tangential, disingenuous and hypocritical, demanding freedom of speech to quash such freedoms in Hong Kong and beyond. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang deflected questions on the matter on Aug. 20, saying that overseas Chinese and students “of course have the right to express their point of view”.
The Twitter ban and account removals did not affect normal usage by overseas Chinese, including students.
“What is happening in Hong Kong, and what the truth is, people will naturally have their own judgement,” Geng said. “Why is it that China’s official media’s presentation is surely negative or wrong?”
Twitter continues to allow China’s media to have accounts, just not to amplify them through advertising.
Geng said that China’s state-backed media utilize social media to “tell China’s story” and policies to foreign audiences. He feigned befuddlement at the news, saying “I don’t know why certain companies or peoples’ reaction is so strong.”
CCTV television anchor Liu Xin wrote on her Twitter account: “How do you define a ‘#disinformation campaign’? When you speak up to give some support for your own country? To express a different political opinion?”
The Twitter announcement of the account suspensions never mentioned a “disinformation” campaign, but rather stated that the removed accounts had violated its policies against spam, coordinated activity, fake accounts, attributed activity, and ban evasion. The ad ban is against countries that control their state media, not those that “give support for your own country” or “express a different political opinion.”
Chinese netizens react
The South China Morning Post, owned by China’s Alibaba Group, published negative reactions to the Twitter and Facebook bans by Chinese netizens. Weibo, China’s top social media company, counted 190 million read posts on the news by 6pm on the day after Twitter’s announcement.
One Weibo user said: “This is definitely a double standard. They are suppressing normal speech in the name of freedom – the irony! Turns out, the mainland is more transparent than this. They only block information that is bad for us.”
Political advertisements by authoritarian state-controlled media that is directed at democracies and democratic protesters should not be considered “normal speech.”
The speech is actually coerced and under duress given that Chinese citizens pay for the advertising through taxes, but have no free speech or votes to develop or represent their views in how the taxes are used. This user is predictably adopting the statist view of authoritarian suppression of speech that mirrors China’s propaganda.
Another Weibo user said: “When we are silent, you say it shows control over freedom of speech. When we talk, you accuse us of being brainwashed and spreading fake news. Honestly, how do you want us to live?”
Democratically, it is dangerous to give so much power over speech to one man, China’s President Xi Jinping. With approximately 18 percent of the world’s population under his control, he can strongly influence what China’s citizens think, and incentivize their proliferation of that thinking to other countries, both through their involvement on social media platforms like WeChat, Weibo and Tik Tok, and through state media advertising.
Ads by Hong Kong tycoons
Companies that seek to curry favor with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are also advertising against democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Starting on Aug 14, seven companies founded by the city’s “corporate elite”, according to Bloomberg, called for restoring the “rule of law”, as defined by the CCP rather than by universal suffrage.
Over the past month of protests, these tycoons’ companies were all among the worst performers on Hong Kong’s Hang Seng stock index. Their ads made pro-Beijing points such as, “Save the economy, safeguard livelihood”, “Rebuild a harmonious society”, and “Would a collapsed Hong Kong benefit you or your family?”
There is growing concern among elites in Hong Kong that the most radical of protesters would prefer to ‘burn the city down’ than hand it over to the CCP over the coming years. That sentiment may be growing in popularity. Many in the broader nonviolent movement wore black in sympathy to the radicals at the 1.7 million person peaceful march on Aug. 18.
However, almost everyone in Hong Kong would prefer a peaceful solution. The broader movement is focused on supporting greater autonomy and democracy for Hong Kong, which is the opposite of what Beijing seeks.
Hong Kong’s wealthiest ten “tycoons”, according to Bloomberg, have seen their fortunes drop a combined $28 billion since the unrest began. The wealth of many Hong Kong tycoons is tied to economic stability in Hong Kong, and political favors by the CCP, including those granted to their businesses on the mainland. So their pro-Beijing ads are arguably an extension of China’s state advertising campaign.
The same goes for companies abroad that donate extensively to pro-China nonprofits such as the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and the China General Chamber of Commerce.
Twitter took a remarkably courageous and enlightened stand on freedom of speech on Aug. 19. While some may see a ban of China’s influence operations as counter to free speech, it is actually a ringing endorsement of the principle. In no way is freedom of speech served by using controlled Chinese opinion and taxpayer money against truly free speech in Hong Kong or beyond.
Controlled speech is not free, but coerced through taxation without representation. It is speech under the duress of incentives and disincentives imposed by the CCP.
The risk that Twitter took is substantial and affects its bottom line — profits. Chinese advertisers contributed around $5 billion in revenue to Facebook last year, about 10 percent of the company’s total. Facebook has no new policy against Chinese state advertisers, but Twitter took that plunge.
Twitter came out ahead, with a 2.8 percent bump in share price. But that could not have been known in advance. Therefore Twitter deserves both our congratulations, and redoubled support. They truly are supporting democracy and human rights globally, and they are at the cutting edge of support for freedom of speech.
Anders Corr holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LICAS News.