GREED IS GOOD. CONNECTION IS EVEN BETTER.
The leaked “Ugly” memo of Facebook Vice President Andrew “Boz” Bosworth is a reverting read. Its blunt and blatant self-serving tone reaches Shakespearean level. But more to the point, it’s the complete lack of irony that is truly awe inspiring.
In the famous and functional “Greed is Good” speech in the move “Wall Street”, Gordon Gekko links the motive of his actions, which he knows are despicable by all moral standards, to not just the fundamentals of humanity but also the whole process of evolution. In his framing, greed is not just good; it’s inescapable. But why would we try to escape, as we will be benefited by our own greedy actions if we play our cards right. And even if we fail, others greedy actions will ensure the prosperity of all humanity.
Bosworth never goes as far as to link the business of connecting people to human evolution. Perhaps it’s because the memo was not meant for public consumption. It wasn’t written as a speech aiming to justify and convert. Instead, as one former executive said in an interview, the memo is clearly “aimed to rally the troops”, affirming a commitment to its business objective. It was also very much in line with the business philosophy of creative destruction shared among the tech world’s creme de la creme clustered in Silicon Valley. So as we still need to wait and see how the news may transpire, what isn’t in doubt is that the memo’s encompassing sentiment — that it’s growth at all costs, or more specifically, growth at all costs to its users — is deadly serious.
Most immediate reports zoom in on the unfortunate parts where Mr. Bosworth claimed even knowing that their users might be physically harmed or killed by their own or others’ engagement with the social media platform was no excuse to not continue with their “questionable contact importing practices”. He cited the plausible example of people being slaughtered by terrorists using the platform’s tools to coordinate their attacks. However, what really stands out and catches my attention is the jump from bullying, terrorism to a future where Bosworth foresaw what “work” the platform might “likely have to do” in China. “All of it”.
As reported by Buzzfeed, the memo came at a time when the company was first hit by a series of mishaps. Earlier in 2016, they were accused by conservatives from the Republican Party in the United States of “liberal biases” in their news curating process. The human team was promptly disbanded. Their attempt to roll out free internet services as part of their “Free Basic” initiative was also rejected by Indian regulators. It was a major setback of Facebook’s otherwise smooth and rapid rise not only in terms of profits but also as a platform where perpetual human connections and sharing of ideas could only lead to the betterment of all mankind. Then came a proper media meltdown — the first murder being broadcast live on Facebook through its streaming service, in which a Chicago man unfortunately captured live footage of his own death.
According to the leak, the “Ugly” memo came out a day after the murder. It would then seem like an appropriate moment for a top executive like Bosworth to comment. However, the outcry over the live broadcasting of that particular murder and other subsequent suicides, seemed trivial even at the time. The platform was literally just being hauled as a major weapon in popular upraisings against tyrannies from Egypt to Hong Kong. According to Joshua Wong, the de facto leader of the Umbrella Movement in the flatter, Facebook was their main media outlet, where thousands of supporters logged in for updates and latest news of the protests.
And even as young people in North America and other European countries began to drop out of the rapidly ageing platform and moved en masse to Twitter and Snapchat, Facebook remained popular and was thought of highly as an effective and neutral social media platform in many countries, in particularly those actually felt the real threats on social justice and their liberty. From this high moral ground the misuses even by terrorists could be seen as exceptions and no more than an understandable cost that needed to be paid for greater human good. And as long as Facebook was seen as committed to improve and stamp out any such unfortunate incidents, we should all cut them some slack.
HERE COMES SMOG JOG MARK
With this in the background, the mentioning of China is revealing. It makes us wonder what was in the planning inside the inner circle of Mark Zuckerberg, who incidentally just came back from a disastrous failed charm offensive during his visit to the country capital. Back in March 2016, the CEO posted a photo of him jogging in Beijing during a morning when the US Embassy gave out a hazardous air pollution warning. This level of self harm is rarely seen even among seasoned Sinophiles. The photo was instantly turned into an internet meme called “Smog Jog”, in which he was not just mercilessly mocked for this shameless attempt in sucking up; the fact that he was also jogging on Tiananmen Square — scene of one of the most bloody oppressions against a civil movement in modern history — was rightly criticized of either being totally political naive or seen as a sign of how far Zuckerberg would go to placate the Chinese Communist Party to gain access to a market that was, and even more so now, openly hostile to foreign investment on any internet-related business.
It was no secret that the Zuckerberg has tried for some years to get close to Chinese top leaders. During a visit by the former “Internet tsar” Lu Wei, who only recently fell from grace as he faced corruption charges, a book of speeches by President Xi Jinping was strategically placed on his desk. It didn’t go unnoticed by the looks of Lu’s smiling face. While most other similar Silicon Valley internet platforms like Google were forced to either give up control on their users’ datas and even source codes or leave the country, many observers began to worry out loud around the same time on how much Zuckerberg would be willing to yield to enter China. And by yielding we mean, at the least, the willingness to censor and block whatever news and information that were handed down from lists produced daily by the Ministry of Propaganda. A routine, necessary but no less hideous chore that no Mainland Chinese platforms, from social media apps like WeChat to popular online forums like Tianya, could avoid. And then there was the concern on user data, as there was not a doubt that all social media users in China were being fully covered by a massive surveillance system.
Consider also what has come to light from recent scandals surrounding Cambridge Analytica, all those attempts to woe Chinese leadership in exchange for potential market access now gains a more sinister tone. China is Facebook’s last bastion to conquer, barred from total world domination only by sheer political force. Four of ten top global social media platforms are based inside the Great Firewall, even though very few people in the West have used or even heard of WeChat, QQ and Weibo. Their rapid growth was no doubt benefited by China’s close door policy when it comes to the internet. They have also morphed into “super apps” that serve multiple functions — in particularly micropayment and banking — that are unthinkable in a Western regulatory environment. Such growth can only be done when the platforms have the backing of a ruling party that is not shy of using market dominant of those corporations, which are completely under their thumb, as an integral part of a total social control over their citizens.
Facebook was reported to be optimistic that the company, possibly first in the form of a photo-sharing app, could return to China this year after being shut out since the early 2010s. While his last trip to the country in October 2017 was sensibly low-key, there were many reports in the aftermath that the government was ready to give the green light. So, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the growth-at-all-costs memo, the urgent question must be ask is: What is in it for China? Or to flip it around: What Zuckerberg is willing, or might already have given, to gain the access?
YOU CAN RUN, BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM CHINA
What we do know is that, Facebook has begun to develop a censorship tool that would satisfy even the vacuum tube level of airtightness required by the Communist Party. The news of such tool was leaked to the press in November 2016, not long after the “Boz” memo was circulated. It is worth noting that new information has come to light that the decision to develop such a tool was seen by some as a major betrayal of a core belief in information openness . It has stirred many and caused the departure of at least one senior engineer. In hindsight, we can safely speculate that mounting discontent on Zuckerberg’s decision to give in to the demands of an authoritarian regime might be the reason why Bosworth felt the need to emphasis China in the memo.
However, for China, automatic self censorship capable of responding to rapid instructions is just the bare minimum of compliance. China will also not be interested in any “products” they can already buy from them in reaching to overseas audiences to promote Chinese viewpoints. If there is one thing we know about President Xi is that he cares even less about soft power than his predecessors. While there’s no evidence of the Communist Party in any similar engagements with the platform on the Russian’s level, it is also no secret that China has their own disinformation warfare teams — nicknamed Wu Mao (“50 cents”) — to cover all any overseas forums and command sections with pro-China remarks. Facebook accounts of pro-democratic activists in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement were also routinely harassed and even hacked by state efforts.
What China most interested is to gain access to a tool that can achieve the same level of surveillance on overseas Chinese, covering those in and from Hong Kong and Taiwan, who cannot be covered by their existing platforms and networks. There is where Facebook comes in. Consider the “All Of It” attitude expressed in the memo and Zuckerberg’s obsession with China, one can imagine a scenario where a Community Party funded Cambridge Analytica type company can gain and do with all type of information and data on everyone — from US-based dissidents, pro-Taiwan independent politicians, Tibetan exiles to young Hong Kong activities with anti-Communist views. It doesn’t take a seasoned party member to figure out what deals can be made explicitly or under the radar with Facebook to immediately tap into this vast pool of data, gathered through goodwill the brand did enjoy among those Chinese users.
MANIPULATION POTENTIAL FOR ROAD AND BELT
An even more Machiavellian is how China can use Facebook to pull the same type of Russian manipulation tricks on countries along the One Road One Belt path. In 2015 Facebook has rolled out its “Free Basics” initiative in 42 developing countries. Most of them are targets if not already partners of the China’s initiative to export its excess production capacity, especially in Africa, where many countries have ties with the Chinese Community Party all go way back to Mao days. As Chinese advocate a financing system for infrastructure that comes without any ideological baggages, it would seem unwise to not find more ways, ideally subtile but effective, to influence the public in case the locals are opposing.
The Face Basic initiative gives users free internet access to Facebook and a handful of websites, they are still required to sign off almost all rights to their privacy and usage information. This aggressive tactic immediately seemed in contradiction to what was promised as a human right campaign. From the get go Facebook faced criticism of promoting a form of digital colonization, while some defended the corporation for at least offering the poor an entry point to the internet, which could be a vital channel for the distribution of public health information. The net result, it seems, is that few doubt that the real intention behind the initiative is to use free access as a bait to occupy a new market as first mover to collect untapped data, which the platform will surely figure out how to monetize.
But to the bottomline: How powerful and transformative this simple initiative can achieve? We have the unfortunate case of Myanmar, where Facebook has become a major source of news and information since the introduction of Free Basics through the state-run telecom MPT. And from 2014, the number of Facebook users skyrocketed from 2 to 40 millions. This huge boom coincided with (or, as some would argue, caused) the raise of anti-Rohingya sentiment. And according to a recent U.N. report, Facebook is accused of playing a “determining role” in the Rohingya humanitarian crisis by allowing fake news in the froms of doctored photos and rumors to spread unrelentingly within its platform. Marzuki Darusman, chair of the United Nations’ Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said just this month that the platform has “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony” by allowing hate speech to proliferate. Whichever way you would like to argue, the fact is some 600,000 Rohingya refugees have since flee across the border into Bangladesh and many have perished. And Facebook is now officially linked to this chain of events that some are calling a genocide.
Myanmar’s stand on One Road One Belt is still ambivalent, but knowing its firm grip on a young and smartphone-addicted population, what would you do if you were President Xi when a self-appointed lackey in the form of Zuckerberg comes asking to trade? The Chinese Communist Party has been brilliant in playing the West for the last three decades by dangling promises of market access in front of their officials and business leaders. Zuckerberg will not be the last and is definitely not the first who thinks he has it all figured out. What is very different from and far more dangerous than other forms and trade is that by offering any concessions — whether to just allow the localized services to be censored or allow or even actively facilitate users’ data to be gathered and used by China, fully aware of its authoritarian nature and potential real life consequences on dissidents or anyone who being labeled as hostile to the regime — Facebook will officially be crossing the point of no return in becoming a willing chess piece for the forthcoming geopolitical struggle between China and the rest of the world.
Much like any Chinese corporations, state-owned or otherwise, from Alibaba, Tencent to Xiaomi, they all have roles to play for the furtherance of President Xi’s agenda. There is not a chance that Facebook could enter China without also willingly becoming one of its crony.