HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Twitter deserves a follow for muting and blocking China. The U.S. social network suspended state-backed accounts trying to subvert protests in Hong Kong. It also will stop accepting ads from government-controlled media. Beijing’s wedge issue provides a good opportunity for Facebook, YouTube and others to reconsider profiting from propaganda.
The announcements from the $32 billion company led by Jack Dorsey included samples of tweets comparing demonstrators in Hong Kong to ISIS fighters and cockroaches, and alleging that they are backed by foreign agents. In addition to the 936 active accounts closed by Twitter, it purged a “spammy network” of around 200,000 dormant ones. Facebook, for its part, shut down multiple inauthentic pages, groups and accounts for the same reason.
Although Twitter says the contemporaneous decision to stop running ads from the likes of China’s state-backed Xinhua News Agency and broadcaster CCTV is unrelated to Hong Kong, their promoted articles make similar allegations.
Big money is at stake. Facebook, for example, generated about $5 billion of revenue from Chinese advertisers last year, or about 10% of its total, according to an estimate by Pivotal Research analyst Brian Weiser. YouTube hosts a channel for China Central Television. The China Daily designed an entire pull-out section to look like news, and paid to place it inside the Washington Post.
By refusing to promote state messaging, paid or covert, Twitter will pay a price. Its moral stand will, however, catch the eyes of young employees at Facebook and Google, who might ask the same of their management teams. Shareholders are bound to wince at such political positions, but with Beijing already pushing foreign companies to back its line as it cracks down on democracy protests, American media outfits are caught squarely in the crossfire. They have little or no presence, or future, in China anyway.
Dealing with Beijing’s efforts to manipulate Western audiences is admittedly complicated, and risks sliding into censorship. Hordes of Chinese posters troll sites like Reddit and Quora, upvoting nationalist comments and attacking critics. Not all of them are government employees. Private Chinese companies also fly their country’s flag by taking out patriotic ads overseas. Is that propaganda, too? The situation cannot be solved in a tweet-thread, but at least Twitter started the conversation.
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