SAN FRANCISCO: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has cultivated relationships with China’s leaders, including President Xi Jinping. He has paid multiple visits to the country to meet its top internet executives. He has made an effort to learn Mandarin.Inside Facebook, the work to enter China runs far deeper.
The social network has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added.
Facebook does not intend to suppress the posts itself. Instead, it would offer the software to enable a third party — in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company — to monitor popular stories and topics as users share them across the social network, the people said. Facebook’s partner would then have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds.
The current and former Facebook employees caution that the software is one of many ideas the company has discussed with respect to entering China. The feature has so far gone unused, and there is no indication that Facebook has offered it to the authorities in China.
But the project illustrates the extent to which Facebook may be willing to compromise one of its core mission statements, “to make the world more open and connected,” to gain access to a market of 1.4 billion Chinese people.
The suppression software has been contentious within Facebook. Several employees who were working on the project have left Facebook after expressing misgivings about it, according to the current and former employees.
So many employees asked about the project and its ambitions on an internal forum that, in July, it became a topic at one of Facebook’s weekly Friday afternoon sessions. Zuckerberg told the gathering that Facebook’s China plans were nascent. But he also struck a pragmatic tone about the future, according to employees who attended the session.
“It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation,” Zuckerberg said, according to employees.