Facebook vs postup: The Case of Media Censorship (we got censored)

On Wednesday 18 December 2019, we shared our first edition of the Hong Kong Tapes – a series of transcribed conversations with Australians currently living and working in Hong Kong – on Facebook.

The caption erred on the side of caution, a quick description of the article.

What happened next is perplexing.

Within 30 minutes, it became clear something was amiss. The post’s reach wasn’t just poor, it was dismal. In fact, it had only been seen by our director, Lucas Binns.

Once this was flagged with the rest of the editorial team, we noticed the reach wouldn’t go past four – the number of members with admin access to postup’s Facebook account.

We reached out to two of our contributors (who didn’t have access), and both confirmed they couldn’t view or access the post. As far as the public was aware, it didn’t exist.

Suspecting the post had been censored, we changed our strategy. Lucas, Michaela and I shared the post to our personal newsfeeds with our own captions – without the words Hong Kong – to instant success.

The next step was to repost. Using H*ng K*ng as a substitute, we reposted the article at 12:56pm. At time of writing, the post had reached 134 people.

The confirmation of our suspicions only brought about further questions. A blanket ban on posts that contain “Hong Kong” is a strategy from Facebook that certainly caught us off guard.

The Hong Kong Tapes are relatively uncontroversial regardless of whether a reader is pro-China or not.

 

Essentially diary entries from Australians caught up in the distressing situation, the stories are informative and relevant to everyday young Australians.

In August, Facebook took action against China’s state-run media, after it came to light that Beijing was using social media to disseminate a false narrative about the situation in Hong Kong. Both Mark Zuckerberg’s platform and Twitter suspended and removed numerous accounts spreading the propaganda.

While these steps seem appropriate, a blanket ban comes across as counterintuitive. Although a simple way to prevent fake news – grassroots media and citizen journalists are clearly inhibited by this approach. Genuine information never reaches the public, largely oblivious that censorship of this sort even takes place.

In this case, the stories from Hong Kong that locals are desperate to spread far and wide are failing to pass the simplest of filters.

To directly quote from the piece, “This older couple – probably 70 years old – came up to me during the two million people march and asked where I’m from and if I live here, then said, ‘please tell your country what’s happening and get them to help us.’

“I didn’t know what to say back to that and still wish I said something more. But it shows how desperate people here are – of all ages – to get the story out there and find help.”

Facebook – whether they realise or not – are suppressing these stories, setting a dangerous precedent that crosses the appropriate line of censorship, actively altering the international news cycle.

Image by Rachael Sharman