Censorship concerns rose in Taiwan as transitional justice advocates being banned from Facebook

Giving further background on the serial-banning of anti-China posts throughout the week

(intro revised on March 12)

In the afternoon of February 28, 2018, the Facebook fan page of National Taiwan University Student Council(NTUSC) posted a statement to pay respect to the students who splashed red paint over the Mausoleum of Chiang Kai-shek in Taoyuan City.[1][2] Though it was a seemingly radical act against past authoritian figures, NTU students have a tradition of being active in social movements, so no one expected anything unusual would have happened that day.

However, the fan page of NTUSC was taken down abruptly just a few hours after the statement was posted, so were the accounts that shared the statement suspended for days. Users complained that they were silenced from the platform “due to the violation of Facebook’s community standards”, and had to borrow accounts from friends to voice out. They became wary of why Facebook was treating their reposts as “violent or offensive”.

It was a creepy coincidence, as such political views were often considered as “de-Chiang-lization” or even “de-China-lization” by the general public. Local news in Taiwan soon reported the incident, since censorship is a severe violation to free speech. Then people connected the dots as Zuckerberg was continously trying to make an impression on China, by eithering showing off his Mandarin, or jogging around the foggy Beijing. They became suspicious of whether Facebook is banning anti-China views, giving in for potential benefits from the mainland.

If you haven’t heard of the event yet, please read this story (Facebook banning protesting posts against China, as Taiwanese students are getting in Zuckerberg’s way) before getting further.

Why bother disturbing Chiang’s tomb?

After WWII, though Chiang Kai-shek seemingly won the warfare on land after 8 devastating years against the Japanese, the communists in China had grown quietly with assistance coming from the north. The Communist Party of China soon gained control over the entire territory of mainland with help from the Soviet Union, forcing Chiang and the Nationalist Party (KMT) to retreat to the south-eastern island, Taiwan, that was under his belligerent authority’s occupation since the end of WWII, waiting for any chance to recover the mainland.

The Communists then declared the establishment of a new nation in 1949, named the People’s Republic of China(PRC), as the retreated Nationalist regime remained the title of the Republic of China(ROC) since they have overthrown the Ching Dynasty since 1912. China was then divided into two separated regimes, each claiming themselves as the sole de jure government of the China State, while both asserted to recover China as a whole by invading and conquering one another. Part of the international community via the forum of the UN Assembly had continued to offer Chiang an opportunity to remain its seat in the UN in the title as “the Republic of Taiwan”. However, Chiang rejected the suggestion, insisting that the ROC is the only legitimate representative of China. But as the PRC had grown stronger and more influential, it eventually replaced Chiang’s seat in the UN representing China in 1971, the Nationalist’s representative was expelled at the same time.

However, Chiang’s intention of recovering the mainland and insisting ROC as the de jure Chinese government is not the general willing of all populations of the island.

(Note: Several revisions were made regarding legal terms within the section on March 13. Special thanks to the fan page Legal Issues on Taiwan Independence Movement.)

“Transitional justice” is the center of the paint-splashing event, adding alarming tussle to the censorship dispute

As an island at the center of the east Pacific coast, Taiwan is perfectly located for trade and military purposes, causing residents disturbed by the Dutch and the Spanish since the 17th century, as Europeans roamed from the Atlantic during the Age of Discovery to bring new language and religious beliefs as an attempt to civilize the aboriginals and gain profit through commerce. The Ching Dynasty of China then took charge of the island for 212 years, until the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, starting the Japanese Colonial period which lasted for half a century.

It was until 1947 when about 6 million Chinese civilians and troops retreated to the island, claiming it retrocession from the Japanese.

The February 28th incident[3] broke out that year, despite the naming of the incident, the massacre actually lasted at least till May, with more than 20 thousand civilians innocently killed. The island was then ruled under martial law[4] for 38 years.

The KMT authority tabooed the incident, and continue to arrest civilians and intellectuals[5], claiming they had ties with communists that threatened to topple the government. Innocent people were tortured until they offered confession for false charges. The period was named “White Terror” and led to ethnical conflicts between residents and immigrants on the island, even till now.

台灣政府舉行228事件中樞紀念儀式(美國之音張永泰拍攝) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Social movements asking for democracy began to rose in the 1980s, thus ending the martial law period in 1987. Activists continue to urge for compensation for victims and their families, both financially and politically. Since 1995, several presidents have publicly apologize for the ROC government, including the announcement of February 28th as a national peace holiday in memorial of the 228 event. Academic institutes also started research on the details of the incident, as exhibitions in museums are held to explain the historical facts to the general public.[3]

However, the government never formally accused any official of wrong-doing. But how could there be victims if no assailants ever exist?

As advocates continue to stress the government on revealing the historical records during the White Terror period, a bill[6] was passed in early December, 2017, preparing for further investigation and the removal of symbols that may invoke authority worship[7], including the renaming of roads and schools named after Chiang Kai-shek.

Students have been protesting long before the bill was even passed.

Chen, Wen-Cheng[8], an associate professor of mathematics at CMU, who earned his B.S. in math at National Taiwan University(NTU) in 1972, visited his family back in Taiwan in 1981. However, he was soon arrested by the police after his arrival and then found dead near the main library in the campus. The ROC government claimed he had committed suicide, but forensic investigators from the US concluded that it was murder. The incident caused major shock and attention across the US, as many students went overseas for graduate study.

Investigation about the case was reopened after the martial law ended, but truth about his death was yet unknown until now. The event was later filmed into the movie Formosa Betrayed in 2009, with the White Terror period as its background.

Since 2012, friends and family of Chen asked for a small monument beside the main library in memorial of the incident, but were repeatedly rejected by the NTU administration. As students continue to protest, a motion was finally passed in the university council in 2015, naming the location Chen’s body found dead after him.

In addition to NTU, students in National Cheng-Chi University, Fu-Jen University and etc. have also taken action for the removal of Chiang’s statues in their campuses.

Radical actions were taken outside of campus as well, such as the paint-splashing event at the Cihu Mausoleum, officially known as the Mausoleum of Late President Chiang, located in Daxi District, Taoyuan City, that led to the arrest of several students and provoked the recent censorship dispute on Facebook.

While aboriginals continue to protest against the development of their traditional indigenous territories, others argue the transitional justice bill should date back to the Japanese colonial period as well.

As the United Nations defines transitional justice as

“the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation, ”

and our democracy progression is still in its early stages, there are ongoing controversies in a various range of issues, including the PRC threatening to invade us from time to time, being a continuous reminder that we’ve still got a long and difficult way to go.

Censorship on Facebook? Or it’s just the black box of algorithms and there’s no one to be blamed?

Though many advocates of transitional justice and Taiwan independence were banned from Facebook recently, some argue that it cannot be verified if Facebook is actually banning certain political views, since there are a few other possibilities, and it doesn’t seem wise for the company to do so either.

Maybe the posts banned were reported as offensive and violent by many? Maybe some terms were so agitated that made it to the level of hate words? Maybe the numbers of reports were so gigantic that it triggered some kind of alarm in Facebook’s system, inducing it to ban all related terms?

True, perhaps there were loads of reports. However, in a democratic society like Taiwan, people are allowed to parade and demonstrate their appeals and ideologies. So of course they’d post on Facebook to advocate and mobilize support. Arguments and disagreements happen on the streets, on the Internet every single day, regarding issues from labor working hours to same-sex marriage. But why didn’t any similar serial-banning incident so severe have happened throughout the years?

To be honest, no one outside of the company truly understands how the algorithms work.

By EpochFail (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As the crowd repeatedly urge the company to make public of its algorithms, it refuses to answer due to commercial interests. However, Facebook claims that there are always human behind the banning process, paying them for describing how they feel when they see the post as the role of “censors”. Unfortunately, the value system behind the censors weren’t reliable as various disputes continue to break out around the world, especially regarding social movement against authorities. Moreover, if the banning process is decided mostly through machine learning, then not even the employees of Facebook or any humankind would be able understand the pattern of censorship semantically nor logically, not even to mention amending the possible mistakes the system could have made.

While not all social movement participants or social media influencers understand the logic behind the black box, removing their posts and blocking them from logging in does not create peace, but instead invokes confusion, fear and anger. As Facebook doesn’t give specific reasons on what the banished users have provoked, how serious the harm were, the canned message users received from the company simply indicated, what they had posted was so severe that they should be punished by being kept out of reach from the platform. No wonder they would be furious without being offered a proper procedure for complaints.

We would like to ask, when did we actually give power to Facebook to decide the range of free speech? Especially when the company doesn’t even have a base in our region to understand the cultural and historical context of the disputes?

Instead, Facebook assigned a manager from Shanghai, China, to take charge of establishing community standards for Mandarin Chinese users (the general public in Taiwan speaks Mandarin as well), further alarming certain advocates concerning Taiwan independence and transitional justice issues. Many worry the change in policies has to do with Facebook’s intention to expand its market to the mainland, compromising to China’s speech censorship regulations.

Added on March 15:
Thanks to Clement Tang for this fact check: The manager I was referring to was George Chen, his full job title is “Head of Public Policy, Hong Kong & Taiwan”. Instead of “…to take charge of establishing community standards”, his responsibilities include making close connections with the public sector and monitoring related policy makers. For more detailed information, see Clement Tang’s response below.

Taiwan is not the only region suffering from this kind of confrontation. And transitional justice is certainly not the only ongoing issue under debate.

On the cover of her book published in 2016, Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist who earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard, put her subtitle as the following:

“How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy.”

This globally recurring condition is inevitably a crisis to be solved with not only expertise and experience regarding math and computer science, but also the balancing of various values. Abusing technology by means of efficiency, convenience and the progression of civilization could likely cause dangers against humanity, liberty and justice for all.

By Tyler Menezes (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Even without banning posts, inducing self-censorship is evil enough

For self-disclosure, I am a former Speaker of the National Taiwan University Student Council(NTUSC) and former student representative of the College of EECS. I experienced the Sunflower Movement at the Legislative Yuan in March 2014 during my first year in university (as a woman, I do not use the word “freshman”).

I grew up in a democratic society, in which I believe the freedom of speech is a fundamental human right to be born with, as our ancestors had fought so hard for. I take the stand of Taiwan being an independent country, a sovereign state, and should be accepted into the United Nations in the name of “Taiwan” instead of “the Republic of China(ROC)”, while the latter is written on our passports right now. Meanwhile, we are forced to call ourselves “Chinese Taipei” in various international tournaments and conferences. As a matter of fact, Taiwan is definitely not a part of China, nor should it follow any kind of rules conducted by the People’s Republic of China(PRC), including their community standards.

I therefore believe the actions of the Facebook official, whether intentionally or not, by taking down certain posts and fan pages, have caused enough chaos and fear that is already inducing self-censorship, which should be considered a severe enough threat to free speech.

Even though some accounts and fan pages were recovered in hours or days, the fear that we couldn’t ever speak freely shattered our confidence we had put on the platform.

If Zuckerberg believe his company is pursuing a better world through connecting us all, I strongly advise he and his team of machine learning experts should reconsider their current community standard policies.

References (Opinions from certain Facebook posts)

[1] The New York Times reporting on the paint-splashing event occured on Feb 28, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/world/asia/taiwan-chiang-kai-shek.html

[2] http://www.crntt.tw/doc/1049/8/8/8/104988800.html?coluid=253&kindid=14678&docid=104988800

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/February_28_Incident

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martial_law_in_Taiwan

[5] A role-playing game to experience the White Terror Era developed by Watchout, a political NGO in Taiwan. https://musou.watchout.tw/role-play/terror-30/

[6] http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2123121/taiwan-moves-erase-chiang-kai-sheks-authoritarian

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4927584/

[8] The Chen, Wen-Cheng Event on Wikipedia in Traditional Chinese. There hasn’t been an English page for the event yet. https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%99%B3%E6%96%87%E6%88%90%E4%BA%8B%E4%BB%B6
Some information about Chen in English can be seen here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chen_Wen-chen