The PEN Pod: On Facebook Bans and China’s Influence on Academic Freedom with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talk about Facebook and Twitter’s response to the New York Post article on Hunter Biden, the implications of Facebook’s ban of Holocaust denial, and the threat of Chinese authoritarianism in higher education in the United States. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 21:38 mark).
I want to start with this pretty incredible—if not entirely questionable—story that came out in the New York Post this week about Joe Biden’s son and Ukraine. Rather than talk about the specifics of the story, I want to talk about Facebook and Twitter’s reactions. Both platforms took actions to limit the distribution of the story, and the Trump campaign officials are crying “censorship.” What is going on here?
Look, one element of this is that the uproar over the response of the platforms is itself promoting this story and pushing it out, because people are debating whether their actions were appropriate. It’s complicated. This, according to experts, has many of the classic earmarks of what Thomas Rid, the scholar who has a recent book out on this topic, calls “active measures.” These are information tactics that are intended to influence—often by a foreign government—politics, thwart democracy, shape the outcome of an election, or otherwise just interfere through methods that might ordinarily be foreign policy, or even military or diplomatic. But instead, the way that they work is through the surreptitious use of information, and particularly, triggering a reaction among journalists.
So, the fact that this appears in the New York Post—a tabloid publication that is not known for its investigative journalism, that would publish something like this without going through all the traps that The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times would, in terms of validating the emails—is a sign that, whoever was behind this didn’t want to go through those thresholds of gating of a very serious journalism outlet, and rather just wanted to put this out in the public. Rid has analyzed the emails themselves and pointed to certain facets—the key incendiary one is more of a photograph of an email, rather than an actual email that the publication seems to have gotten its hands on. So, there are some classic earmarks here, and I think a story is out this morning—we’ll see what happens with this—that the U.S. intelligence community is identifying this leak as false.
“The question of whether the platforms would do the same for the other side, and when you have this outsized reaction from the Trump camp and conservatives crying ‘censorship,’ that can feed the mentality on the right that their speech is being targeted, that they’re being treated unfairly, that the platforms are out to get them. That itself has some very nefarious consequences. I think we’re better off if everybody feels they’re treated more or less fairly by these platforms.”
Here’s the dilemma for the platforms: There are substantial reasons to doubt the veracity of what is contained in this story, and yet we know that with the way that a story like this populates online, it becomes explosive. The algorithms drive interest, it’s of particular concern to very active communities—it can be political communities that share things at a very rapid pace—and it can propagate all over the network so that every American knows about it by the time you wake up the next morning. So, the platforms—consistent with what we’ve talked about over months, which is the increasing pressure from consumers, from advertisers, from regulators to address the harms that can result from online content—are now taking seriously the threat that this could shape the election, and that particularly their role in amplifying it may be criticized after the fact as having an impact on the election, and potentially validating false information. That’s why they put the brakes on. Twitter has specifically spelled out that this is pursuant to policies that they have that prevent the unauthorized disclosure of email addresses, which are included in the story, and also of hacked information. They have written policies that they are saying they’re applying here. I’m not so sure about Facebook, or whether they’ve articulated precisely what within their community standards has been violated here now.
So, I think it’s a potentially valid decision, but it’s just so easy to see it through a political lens, and to ask the question, “If this were something comparable coming from the other side, would they be putting the brakes on similarly? Is this politically inflected? What if it was a disclosure about President Trump and there were some controversies about credibility?” The Biden campaign didn’t forcefully deny this, in its totality—their denial was more measured. The question of whether the platforms would do the same for the other side, and when you have this outsized reaction from the Trump camp and conservatives crying “censorship,” that can feed the mentality on the right that their speech is being targeted, that they’re being treated unfairly, that the platforms are out to get them. That itself has some very nefarious consequences. I think we’re better off if everybody feels they’re treated more or less fairly by these platforms. I don’t think this is going to be the last piece of disinformation, or the last act of measure that rises to the surface, in the weeks leading up to the election. And I think the heat will be on the platforms in terms of demonstrating that they’re really capable of coming up at this with an even hand.
“My concern is what happens when other groups come forward and say that speech that relates to their history or identity can fuel bigoted sentiments toward Muslims or Catholics or women or transgender individuals? If people come forward and insist that speech be likewise expunged, on the basis that if you’re doing it for Holocaust denial, you can equally as much do it for, for example, cartoons that insult the Muslim prophet Muhammad. There’s some power to that argument, and the question is just how far it goes, and what subjects are effectively off-limits, if the rule is that anything that can fuel bigotry and hatred should be expunged.”
Let’s stick with the platforms, and maybe address one of these issues about policies. Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg seemed to actually reverse himself this week. A few years ago, he pointed to Holocaust denial on the platform as abhorrent but permissible speech on Facebook. Now, Facebook says it will pull any posts that distort or deny the Holocaust. Do you think that’s the right course of action here?
It does raise very similar issues, because one can understand how devastating Holocaust denial is. There is a climate of rising antisemitism in this country and around the world, it is spiraling, and there was heavy pressure from groups of survivors and others to take this step. My concern is what happens when other groups come forward and say that speech that relates to their history or identity can fuel bigoted sentiments toward Muslims or Catholics or women or transgender individuals? If people come forward and insist that speech be likewise expunged, on the basis that if you’re doing it for Holocaust denial, you can equally as much do it for, for example, cartoons that insult the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
There’s some power to that argument, and the question is just how far it goes, and what subjects are effectively off-limits, if the rule is that anything that can fuel bigotry and hatred should be expunged. Right now, there’s the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that is a matter of great public interest, but it’s easy to argue that a discussion about that can fuel hostility toward Armenians or Azerbaijanis. Does that mean you can no longer debate this on Facebook? So, I think that line-drawing question is going to become very important. One thing that just has always struck me as a major deficiency is that, if people do have concerns that legitimate political debate and discourse is being stifled through the overzealous enforcement of these rules, there’s very little recourse. The appeal systems are very weak, it’s impossible to get a human being involved. So, I think there’s a great risk of overbreadth in terms of the array of expression that is going to be suppressed—not necessarily just from the Holocaust denial ban itself, but if you take it to its logical conclusion and apply it to a similar standard to all sorts of other groups.
“This is a time of great financial pressure on university campuses, with the pandemic and the closure of in-person learning in a lot of these schools. Asking them to turn back Chinese money is a tall order, but I do think—and I’ve written about this—that we have to become far more alert to the ways in which China’s long arm is exporting authoritarianism to our own country, and other Western countries.”
Lastly, I want to turn to China. Late last week, the secretaries of state and education wrote a letter to higher ed leaders, warning of the “malign influence” of the government of China. In particular, they were warning campuses to rethink their ties to what are known as Confucius Institutes that bring Chinese language classes to the U.S., among other things. I’m curious about your take on this, only because I think that there’s a real concern about the impact Beijing is having on academic expression and free speech, especially in the wake of what we’ve seen in Hong Kong. At the same time, this administration has poisoned the waters, especially with its own xenophobia around China. What do you think we should be worried about here? Is it the Institutes, is it the Trump administration, or what else is going on in this context?
I think you put it well, which is that the administration has been so incendiary in its speech and actions toward China—this persistent calling it “the China virus,” the effort to pin the blame for its failed COVID-19 response on China has inflicted everything they say and do. So, one has to take an aware lens to that. At the same time, the Confucius Institutes are something that we at PEN America have had concern about for a long time, because the way they’re just depicted in this letter is, I think, pretty much accurate. They’re funded by the Chinese government and its ministry of culture. The ministry imposes strictures in terms of what can be taught, who can do the teaching, what subjects are off limits or the classic no-go areas within discourse on the mainland. Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and now Hong Kong and its democracy movement are all off limits. So, for those rules to be applied at U.S. university campuses—I think it’s really distressing.
Some of the campuses have woken up to this, and there are now several dozen that are ending their ties voluntarily, recognizing that it’s impossible to host a Confucius Institute with the presets of academic freedom. However, there are other universities that, frankly, like getting the money. Chinese funding is coming in not just for the Confucius Institutes, but for endowed professorships to support work in the sciences and technology, and in all sorts of areas. So, there is a reluctance to turn off Chinese benefactors and to insult them. This is a time of great financial pressure on university campuses, with the pandemic and the closure of in-person learning in a lot of these schools. Asking them to turn back Chinese money is a tall order, but I do think—and I’ve written about this—that we have to become far more alert to the ways in which China’s long arm is exporting authoritarianism to our own country, and other Western countries. I think this is part of that alarm bell, and it’s something that we need to take a lot more seriously.