Facebook must prioritize queer rights in repressive countries over lucrative expansion

Caleb Wong

When I first saw the pride flag as a reaction on Facebook, I couldn’t help but be moved. The social media company, after several missteps with transgender users regarding their “real names” and allowing racist right-wing fake news to run unchecked on their websites, finally seemed to be proactively doing good. I knew Facebook has long moved past its startup days and is now a giant company that probably exerts too much influence over the information we see, but I felt like they cared for once about a cause bigger than themselves.  

But then my optimism turned into skepticism. While I could gleefully react with pride to my queer friends’ posts of pride parade photos and savage memes, users in oppressively authoritarian countries such as Russia were denied access to the button. Facebook says they are “testing” the rollout, but it seemed unfairly/unduly selective, especially when queer victims in Russia’s Chechnya region are beaten and tortured into divulging the identities of others like them. It’s also not available in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Egypt to vulnerable people and their allies who deserve the ability to show solidarity with each other, to tell each other that their existence matters.  

Being able to share pride with others is an act of joy, but it’s denied to those who could use it the most. Facebook wanted to capitalize on the corporate benefits of looking inclusive but not do the hard work of helping queer folks left behind in less friendly countries.  

The pride button might just be a reaction — but it is symptomatic of how Facebook prioritizes expansion into repressive regimes over queer rights. Facebook refused to even justify its reasoning about pride button availability to The Daily Texan and other news outlets, suggesting that it is more interested in currying the favor of the countries it’s entering rather than protecting queer speech. Three Facebook employees who spoke to The New York Times last year said that the company has developed software to suppress posts that don’t toe the Communist Party line from showing up in mainland China.  

While the company hasn’t deployed the software yet, it would undoubtedly censor the voices of vulnerable populations if used. In this context, the lack of the pride button can only make Vladimir Putin and his lackeys look favorably down on Mark Zuckerberg, who has obediently silenced the prime minister’s critics. Zuckerberg needs to push for, not compromise on, the full recognition of human dignity — and that can start by fully opening the platform to them.  

Queer Americans have already shown that the platform can advance social good. In the comparatively free United States, many transgender people have found affirmation by sharing their stories on Facebook. “Now you can see real-life transgender people,” Aidan Key, a transgender rights organizer, told The New York Times. “You can hear their stories.” Zuckerberg should learn from the activists by seeking to learn more about tyrannized communities abroad like Chinese queer folks, who aren’t even allowed to watch representations of themselves on state-controlled TV.  

Zuckerberg must not repeat this atrocity. It might cost the tycoon and his stockholders money. But giving a voice to the marginalized will make Zuckerberg and his company rich in virtue, a reward in itself. He has leverage as the world’s largest social media network to end censorship and usher in free expression.  

Although Zuckerberg is a little insincere, he seems intent on understanding the communities that use Facebook. He recently wrote a post from a small town in Iowa about the “real divergence between opportunity available in small towns and big cities.” Now if he would only reach out a digital hand to the queer community, shocked and tortured in Russia, so they have the opportunity to amplify their voice in a dictatorship that despises them. Surely that would elicit a worthy reaction of pride.

Wong is a Plan II and government senior from McKinney. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @calebawong.