Facebook’s leaders have repeatedly invoked anti-China rhetoric in an effort to undermine the social media giant’s chief rival, TikTok. Look no further than the April Bloomberg TV interview with Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global affairs, where he questioned the “values” underpinning new technologies like TikTok. Yet, Facebook needs to look in the mirror to see its own hypocrisy when it comes to China.
Facebook, which has rebranded to Meta, generated over $5 billion in ad revenues in a one year span a few years ago from Chinese businesses and government agencies, as documented by a news story published in Reuters. That staggering amount of revenues was second only to the ad revenues Facebook received from the U.S. and made up 10% of the company’s sales that year. More recently, CNBC reported that Facebook continues to rely heavily on ad sales to Chinese retailers to make up for declining ad sales in other markets. So while Facebook plays on the America First sympathies of consumers and policymakers to hammer its competitor, it is at the same time tapping into Chinese markets to boost profits and pay for a third beach home for its executives.
The New York Times delved deeper into Facebook’s reliance on Chinese ad dollars in a February 2019 article, noting that even though “Facebook’s apps and websites have been blocked in China for years,” they have found a local partner, Meet Social, that has “unexpectedly turned China into one of Facebook’s largest sources of advertising revenue,” anticipating “doing $1 billion to $2 billion in ad sales on Facebook and Instagram” that year, and putting up about 20,000 Chinese ads on Facebook alone. Don’t be fooled by the Facebook talking point that they are banned in China when they receive such a huge amount of cash from Chinese advertising.
Facebook has also been a platform for Chinese state-controlled media. The Kennedy School at Harvard University put out a report in January 2022 where it “studied the relationship between Facebook advertisements from Chinese state media on the global media environment by examining the link between advertisements and online news coverage of China by other countries.” The report found that, in the over 100 countries studied, those “that see a large increase in views of Facebook advertisement from Chinese state media also see news coverage of China become more positive.” It cited data demonstrating that “Chinese state media coverage was shown to drive changes in news coverage in the United States as well.” In short, Facebook has been a platform for Chinese government propaganda.
It is also ironic that Facebook has promoted concerns that TikTok might allow American user data to flow to China. Facebook itself has been allowing access to sensitive user information in China for years. The BBC reported in June 2018 that “Facebook has confirmed it has a data-sharing partnership with Chinese firms including Huawei, a company U.S. intelligence previously flagged as a security threat.” And according to CNN, U.S. lawmakers are now investigating new disclosures that “tens of thousands of software developers in China, Russia and other ‘high-risk’ countries may have had access to detailed Facebook user data” in previous years. Social media companies use the data of consumers to target ads and to make the experience better so people keep using the service. If Facebook is so concerned about such data getting into the hands of China, maybe it should start looking at its own policies before making accusations about others.
Facebook has dirty hands when it comes to connections to China. It loves the cash coming from Chinese ad revenues and has served as a platform for Chinese state propaganda. When it acts holier than thou in criticizing competitors, remember that Facebook is supported, in large part, by its own big presence in China.