By Tsering Woeser, published: December 30, 2014
On December 26, 2014, I reposted on my Facebook page a video of Tibetan Buddhist monk Kalsang Yeshe’s self-immolation that occurred on December 23 [in Tawu county, Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, China], accompanied by an excerpted report explaining that self-immolation is a tragic, ultimate protest against repression. A few hours later, my post was deleted by the Facebook administrator. I was rather shocked when a Facebook notice of deletion leapt out on screen, which I tweeted right away with the thought, “It’s been more than six years since I joined Facebook in 2008, and this is the first time my post was deleted! Does FB also have ‘little secretaries?’”
“Little Secretaries” refer to censors hired by Weibo, the Twitter-like microblog in China, and their job is to delete posts that are deemed “politically sensitive.” In China, that means content not welcomed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. As the government’s foot soldiers to suppress expression, the Little Secretaries are roundly loathed by Chinese Internet users and regarded as enemies of freedom. In China, my posts had been constantly subjected to censorship on domestic social media platforms that took orders from the Party’s propaganda department, to the point that my accounts were repeatedly removed altogether. To avoid censorship, I took the trouble, like many Chinese netizens, to scale the Great Fire Wall to visit websites outside of China, including Facebook. You can very well imagine then my moment of disbelief when I realized that Facebook had censored my post: Have Big Brother and his Little Secretaries taken over the world?
The incident attracted a lot of attention. It made rounds in Twitter’s Chinese community; media outlets such as the Voice of America and the New York Times reported on it. Today, VOA’s Chinese website published Facebook’s response:
Facebook has long been a place where people share things and experiences. Sometimes, those experiences involve violence and graphic videos. We work hard to balance expression and safety. However, since some people object to graphic videos, we are working to give people additional control over the content they see. This may include warning them in advance that the image they are about to see contains graphic content. We do not currently have these tools available and as a result we have removed this content.
The VOA report also said that, “a Facebook employee familiar with operational details at Facebook who prefers to remain anonymous told VOA on December 27 that Woeser’s post was reported by users but the number of users who reported the post cannot be revealed to the media out of consideration for protecting sources. He said that Facebook evaluates a post even if it is reported by only one user. He iterated that the post was deleted because of graphic content, not out of political motivation.” The VOA report further reported that, “In response to what Woeser pointed out, that Facebook allowed video of ISIS executions of hostages, the anonymous Facebook employee said the ISIS video didn’t show the moment of beheading. He said that he believes Woeser could re-post the video on Facebook if she excises it.”
While I appreciate Facebook’s response, as censors in China never bothered to answer my inquiries, it has not expelled all my questions.
This particular self-immolation occurred outside a police post. Whoever videotaped it took great risk to do so. Anyone involved in taping, photographing or disseminating videos or photos of self-immolation, once caught, would face severe punishment. Over a hundred Tibetans have been imprisoned for these acts. Tibetans who burn themselves to death are not seeking death for their own sake but to call attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. They die so that the Tibetans as a people may live in dignity. Those who took tremendous risk to videotape the self-immolation and to upload it online know perfectly that such videos will not be able to spread on Chinese websites, and they must be posted on websites in free societies such as Facebook for the world to see. When Facebook decides to delete the video to get rid of “graphic content,” it renders the sacrifice of the self-immolator and the risk taken by the videographer as nothing. Is that what Facebook wants to accomplish?
It seems that Facebook defends its deletion of my post from a professional, technical and neutral point of view. My question is, if the self-immolation video I posted is deemed “graphic,” what about the photo of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc burning himself to death in 1963 in protest of government persecution that was widely published in papers worldwide? Similarly, photos of exiled Tibetan Jamphel Yeshi running down a New Delhi street on March 26, 2012, during Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to India, were also widely published and viewed. Should these photos be censored too for being “graphic”? What could be more graphic than terrorists crashing airplanes into the World Trade Towers and victims jumping out of windows of the skyscrapers? In all the cases here, the very “graphicness” bespeaks the evil and the terror, and it calls for a moral response.
Western democracies have recently resolved to strike ISIS, and the public support for this is largely the result of the Jihadist videos of beheading hostages that have been disseminated online. Facebook defended its inclusion of these beheading videos which it claims do not show the graphic moment of beheading. But I, for one, saw videos of the beheading moment on Facebook. I even saw footage of the executioners putting the severed head on the torso of the dead. Even with a video without the moment of beheading, does it not “involve violence” and is it therefore not “graphic?” Terrorists want to terrify people, but instead, they have rallied the world to eradicate them.
If Facebook, out of professionalism, deletes content about dark realities and makes them go away from in front of our eyes, is it making “each Facebook user safely communicate with each other and with the world” as it claims? The fact of the matter is, such self-imposed blindness will only numb the mind and feelings, emboldening, even encouraging the evil.
It is not enough for Facebook to have Face; it must also have Faith. When evaluating content, it should not be content to skim over the mere surface. It must see and understand the meaning and value of an image. When professing neutrality, I hope Facebook remembers the words of Jewish writer and Nobelist Elie Wiesel: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
When I discussed the matter with friends, they thought, by limiting my questioning of Facebook to whether technical neutrality helps or hinders justice, I am in essence accepting Facebook’s claim that the deletion of my post was not politically motivated. They think that the incident is not as simple as that, and that I need to question whether Facebook was trying to curry favor with Beijing. On Facebook, videos of Tibetan self-immolations have not been censored before, and my friends argued that we have reason to worry that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is compromising on defending users’ freedom of expression as he seeks China’s permission to allow Facebook in China, given that he visited Beijing two months ago and met with high-ranking Chinese officials, and that a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Zuckerberg received Lu Wei, China’s Internet czar in Facebook’s headquarters where he ingratiated himself to his guest by showing that he and his employees were reading Xi Jinping’s writings to learn about China.
This chain of logic, should it really exist, shows how dictatorial power can directly limit freedom of expression in the free world through indirect manipulation. This is what’s most sinister and what the liberal democracies need to be vigilant about.
December 28, 2014, Beijing.
Tsering Woeser is a Tibetan writer and poet born in 1966 in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, and lives in Beijing. “She writes to both a Han (Chinese) and a Tibetan audience, and her writings are said to give public expression for the first time to the emotions and experiences of a people and a culture previously hidden from the mainstream.” Read more about Woeser here.
Facebook Deletes Post on Tibetan Monk’s Self-Immolation, The New York Times sinosphere blog, December 27, 2014.
Nudity, Graphic Imagery Pose China Questions for Facebook, WSJ, December 30, 2014
(Translated by China Change)