The world’s largest social network could be one step closer to entering an elusive market: China. Facebook has been trying to re-gain access to China for years, but a reported new tool to limit the stories it shows users could be the ticket to a huge new demographic.
Censorship in China
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have been banned in China for years because they allow users to share practically anything and go against the strict censorship guidelines set by the Chinese government, which limits many topics, including stories related to politics and some of China’s history. Instead, China uses Renren as a social media alternative that complies with the government’s regulations about content filtering.
Although Facebook has a staggering 1.8 billion monthly active users worldwide, ad revenue has slowed lately, which has been a major cause of concern. The company believes that if it can access the large market in China, home to the largest population in the world, its growth can reemerge.
Facebook’s New Tool
In order to gain access to China and increase its appeal with the Chinese government, Facebook is reportedly developing an internal tool that can restrict certain posts from showing up in users’ feeds within certain geographic regions. The tool could potentially remove all stories from the newsfeeds of users in China that don’t meet the strict criteria of the government. Facebook won’t officially confirm the existence of the new software and only states that the company is spending time to learn more about China.
Facebook currently removes content from its site at the request of governments around the world and makes it public in an annual report that includes the number of requests to take down content and their reasoning. The new software would reportedly allow third parties to monitor stories and control visibility, making it likely that Facebook would outsource the actual monitoring of posts to a third party, such as a Chinese firm, instead of doing it itself. The use of a third party is where the Chinese system differs from Facebook’s current restrictions, as the power wouldn’t be directly with Facebook.
However, Facebook has stated that it hasn’t made any decisions on its plan to re-enter China.
Will it Succeed?
Although Facebook’s new tool could help open major doors in China, it is far from a sure thing. Some current and former Facebook employees question if the software will ever actually be implemented or if it will go the way of many other development projects and never make it out of the boardroom. Other major companies, including Amazon and Yahoo, have attempted similar programs in the region and have been unsuccessful. Google pulled out of Mainland China after issues regarding the censorship of search results and now routes all traffic through Google Hong Kong.
“These are complicated issues, but I just don’t imagine that it’s going to be successful because you’re going to have to have Chinese advertisers support it and the Chinese government support it,” said Dan Rosenswieg, former COO at Yahoo, who has experience in the difficulties of making business deals with the Chinese government.
Some experts think that Facebook’s new technology is a step in the right direction to get back into China but that it doesn’t go far enough and that the Chinese government ultimately won’t approve of it. There’s also the issue of social networking sites like Facebook already running their course in China and not being as successful as they once were, bringing up the question of whether Facebook could really succeed in China if it were granted access.
Battle With Fake News
Back on the home front, Facebook is facing another battle, this one with the rapid increase and prevalence of fake news stories on its site and other social media platforms, especially in the wake of the U.S. presidential election. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently came out with a strong statement that Facebook is working tirelessly to fight the spread of fake news. Some experts are now wondering if the new censorship tool will be used in the U.S. to restrict access to news stories deemed as fake.
China also has issues with fake news, and it uses a similar technology to Facebook’s new tool to set up keyword filters to flag stories that are false. Some Chinese sites also use human filters to read news stories and decide if they are true or if they should be deleted. Experts are in disagreement on if a similar system would work in the U.S. Since Facebook is still relatively early in its plan to fight fake news, the company has not made its specific plans available.
Facebook’s new tool could pave the way for the company to re-enter the large China market and could potentially change the way even users in the U.S. interact with the stories in their newsfeeds.