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Will Facebook be China’s propaganda tool?

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Barron's Asia

Fresh from helping elect Donald Trump, Facebook may be angling to help China’s President Xi Jinping win over his masses, too. And there’s little for the outside world to “like” about it.

According to The New York Times, Mark Zuckerberg’s universe of friends, shares and pokes is doing just what many of us feared: working up a new Facebook-lite platform that enables censorship to a degree that Xi might applaud. While access to China’s 1.4 billion people may be just what shareholders want to justify a price-to-earnings ratio of 47 times, Facebook’s methods would be a great leap backward both for China and the social media world.

By effectively sharing its fake news problem with the most populous nation, Facebook would be a pawn of Xi’s intensifying censorship push. Since late 2012, internet freedoms have been curtailed, foreign journalists are being cajoled to pull punches and Hong Kong’s once freewheeling media is under assault. If Xi greenlights Zuckerberg’s entry, it’s only because the Communist Party sees Facebook is an ideal tool to peddle propaganda and monitor who’s friends with whom, who said what and track the movements and activities of anyone it finds suspect.

Granted, Facebook has had a rough 17 days amid accusations it was a pawn in Trump’s surprise election. Propagandists used Zuckerberg’s Timelines to damage Hillary Clinton with fictitious reports. In the weeks before the election, my own feed pulsated with bizarre, but official-looking, tales of Clinton having killed people, the pope endorsing Trump, rigged voting booths, imminent indictments, you name it.

At first, Zuckerberg called “crazy” the idea that this plethora of misinformation and counterintelligence helped swing the Nov. 8 contest. He’s since pivoted to a we’ll-fix-this-problem message. Why, then, willfully export an eerily similar phenomenon to China?

As the Times reports, programmers have “quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas,” a feature “created to help Facebook get into China.” And “Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort,” former staffers told the Times.

Facebook would feign ignorance. We’re not, it’s sure to insist, going to actively censor posts. Rather, the software empowers a third party — a Chinese partner — to track and control posts and their visibility. Let’s be honest, though. That partner will ultimately be Xi’s Communist Party. I’m hoping Zuckerberg thinks better of it and this feature never sees the light of day. But his zeal to tap China’s masses and cheer his shareholders may win the day. That was clear enough earlier this year when Zuckerberg met with Xi’s propaganda minister and even jogged through smoggy Tiananmen Square without a face mask.

I’d just recommend Facebook officials read the James Fallows feature that just ran in The Atlantic, “China’s Great Leap Backward.” There’s a view that China’s millennials, armed with rising incomes and smartphone apps galore, are upending the middle kingdom and putting the Communist Party on its hind legs. The reality, Fallows argues, is that “the China of 2016 is much more controlled and repressive than the China of five years ago, or even 10,” partly because of Beijing’s success in controlling cyberspace.

In some ways, make that 19 years. The live news conference that then-President Jiang Zemin did with Bill Clinton in Beijing in October 1997 would never happen in Xi’s China’s. Jiang’s openness and political courage made the 90-year-old an unlikely hero among China’s selfie generation. The question for Washington, as Fallows argues, is how does Xi’s effort to wage his own Cultural Revolution change the political calculus? Facebook, given its global reach and what just happened in the U.S., must be part of this debate.

Xi’s aggressive foreign policies — including his South China Sea land grab and support of rogue regimes — put him on a collision course with a Trump White House. But his determination to wall his people off from the ideas, debates and conjecture of the day collide with China’s 6.5 percent growth ambitions. Beijing’s Great Wall of Censorship helps explain, for example, why the economy ranks behind Slovenia and Russia in innovation surveys.

Facebook-lite would create the illusion of transparency, while enabling Xi to control the narrative and tighten his grip. The kinds of distortions that pilloried Clinton will help Xi enhance his domestic soft power and control stories beyond Chinese borders. Revving up anti-Japanese sentiment would be easier than ever. So would painting dealings with Americans, Europeans or Filipinos in a negative light. Chinese Nationalism 2.0 would reach a fever pitch as the economy slows, courtesy of Zuckerberg’s blue and white pages.

If Xi were really thinking things through, he’d welcome Facebook, Google and other tech mainstays without special censorship features as partners in modernizing China and rooting out corruption. Instead, he’s channeling Mao Zedong. Facebook shouldn’t help him.

Based in Tokyo, William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com