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A Muslim-Hindu Kiss Puts Netflix India in the Crosshairs

NEW DELHI — On television, Lata and Kabir are clandestine lovers thwarted by faith and history. She is Hindu and he a Muslim in India in the early 1950s, in the wake of bloody sectarian clashes that echo through the country to this day. At one point, in a secluded spot with a Hindu temple as the backdrop, the two young college students share a furtive but passionate kiss.

In the real world, that onscreen kiss has embroiled Netflix, the American streaming service, in the increasingly bitter and religiously charged world of Indian politics.

Members of the Hindu nationalist party that controls India’s central government have asked the authorities to investigate Netflix, calling the scene in the television series “A Suitable Boy” offensive to their beliefs. They have also called on Indians to boycott the streaming service.

Netflix is not likely to face serious legal trouble, experts say. But the campaign puts pressure on the streaming service at a time when the government is increasing censorship of what Indians watch online.

The campaign also comes as members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are pressing anti-Muslim initiatives, including one in the state of Madhya Pradesh that would increase penalties against anyone found guilty of using marriage to force someone to change religion. The party has won over a wide swath of Hindu voters with its nationalist pitch, but it has also divided the country and presided over an increase in religious tensions and sometimes violence, particularly against Muslims.

The campaign “could perversely incite Netflix and other content producers to think twice before commissioning work that depicts interfaith relations in a positive light in the future,” said Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at Ashoka University.

Thomas Cherian, a spokesman for Netflix, said the company had no comment on the police complaint. Netflix, which launched in India only in 2016, has a small but growing audience in the country.

“A Suitable Boy” is based on a 1993 novel by Vikram Seth and revolves around a young Hindu woman struggling with her mother’s edict that she must soon be wed. The six-part series, originally produced by the BBC, takes place in the years after the partition of India, when millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs scrambled to get on the correct side of the border after what is now Pakistan was carved out of the country to be a mostly Muslim nation. An untold number of people perished in the resulting violence.

The series was directed by Mira Nair, who was born in India and has had a long career as a filmmaker in India and Hollywood, directing movies including “Monsoon Wedding,” “Mississippi Masala” and “Vanity Fair.”

Narottam Mishra, a member of the B.J.P. and home minister in Madhya Pradesh state, said on Monday that a party youth leader had filed the complaint about “A Suitable Boy” because of scenes that depict the protagonists kissing at a Hindu temple.

“To me there is nothing suitable in that. In our temple, if you are filming a kissing scene, Rama music is on in the background, I do not consider it good,” Mr. Mishra said at a news conference on Monday, referring to Hindu devotional music. “For that there are other places.”

Rakesh Kumar Singh, the police chief in the district where the complaint was filed, said an investigation was underway.

The complaint named Monika Shergill, vice president for content for Netflix India, and Ambika Khurana, the company’s director of public policy in India.

If convicted, Ms. Shergill and Ms. Khurana would face a jail term of up to three years, a fine, or both.

In India, intentionally hurting religious sentiments is a criminal offense, and this isn’t the first time Bollywood actors, comedians or others in the entertainment industry have been charged.

But courts, including India’s Supreme Court, have generally taken a narrow view of the law, saying that content deemed offensive by some isn’t necessarily intentionally malicious, and that invoking the section on religious sentiment too liberally threatens freedom of speech.

In this case, legal experts said it was unlikely that a police investigation would advance very far.

However, the possibility of a chilling effect on Netflix is real, as rhetoric against interreligious romance in India heats up and as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes greater control over digital content.

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Credit…Indranil Mukherjee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Gaurav Tiwari, the B.J.P. youth leader who filed the complaint, had issued a call to action on Twitter even before that, urging his followers to delete Netflix from their phones. He also accused the video-streaming service of promoting “love jihad,” a term used by Hindu nationalists who accuse minority Muslims of luring Hindu women to marry them and forcing them to convert to Islam to change India’s demographic balance.

The complaint was filed in Madhya Pradesh, the state where lawmakers are planning to consider a bill early next year that would make forced religious conversion by marriage a nonbailable offense subject to a five-year sentence. Mr. Mishra has said the bill is meant to check the rising incidence of forced conversions in the state.

State legislatures in Uttar Pradesh, whose top official is a Hindu monk, and two other B.J.P.-controlled states are likely to take up similar bills. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization affiliated with the B.J.P., is lobbying state governments across India for laws regulating interfaith marriages.

Conservative norms in India ensure that interreligious unions remain relatively rare, though past Indian governments have encouraged secular views on the matter. India’s Special Marriage Act, passed in 1954, was intended to bolster the secular ideals in the country’s Constitution by overturning a British colonial-era law that required the bride or groom to renounce his or her faith.

Amid the rising tide of Hindu nationalism, interfaith relationships have come under sharp criticism from anti-Muslim forces.

Last month, a unit of India’s Tata conglomerate withdrew a jewelry advertisement featuring a Hindu-Muslim family celebrating a baby shower, following threats to one of its stores and wide criticism on social media.

Beyond issues of religion, Netflix and other streaming services were already getting increased scrutiny from the Indian government.

Earlier this month, the Indian government announced rules to regulate content on video streaming platforms, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney’s Hotstar. The Indian government already plays a similar role in movies and broadcast television, but many users of streaming services enjoy the scant restrictions on programming they watch online.

Free speech advocates worry that Indian viewers could be subjected to the censorship of language, sex, violence and even cigarette smoking they already experience in Bollywood and Hollywood films shown in Indian movie theaters.

Bollywood and show business have sometimes made for easy targets for India’s politicians and activists. But they also can serve as a handy rallying center for whipping up public sentiment. While “A Suitable Boy” isn’t likely to get pulled from India’s smartphones and computer screens, it could remain a political talking point for some time.

The Netflix series “constitutes for these conservative organizations both a threat as well as an opportunity to mobilize their base around a symbolic target, and spread false notions that vilify Muslims at large,” said Mr. Verniers, of Ashoka University.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

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The President vs. the American Media

The president has some bones to pick with the American media: about our “bias,” our obsession with racism, our views on terrorism, our reluctance to express solidarity, even for a moment, with his embattled republic.

So President Emmanuel Macron of France called me on Thursday afternoon from his gilded office in the Élysée Palace to drive home a complaint. He argued that the Anglo-American press, as it’s often referred to in his country, has blamed France instead of those who committed a spate of murderous terrorist attacks that began with the beheading on Oct. 16 of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who, in a lesson on free speech, had shown his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” President Macron said, recalling Nov. 13, 2015, when 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks at a concert hall, outside a soccer stadium and in cafes in and around Paris.

“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values — journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — when I see them legitimizing this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”

Legitimizing violence — that’s as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the American president. And Americans, understandably distracted by the hallucinatory final days of the Trump presidency, may have missed the intensifying conflict between the French elite and the English-language media.

More than 250 people have died in terror attacks in France since 2015, the most in any Western country. Mr. Macron, a centrist modernizer who has been a bulwark against Europe’s Trumpian right-wing populism, said the English-language — and particularly, American — media were imposing their own values on a different society.

In particular, he argued that the foreign media failed to understand “laïcité,” which translates as “secularism” — an active separation of church and state dating back to the early 20th century, when the state wrested control of the school system from the Catholic Church. The subject has become an increasing focus this year, with the approach of the 2022 election in which Mr. Macron appears likely to face the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Mr. Macron didn’t initially campaign on changing the country’s approach to its Muslim minority, but in a major speech in early October denouncing “Islamist separatism,” he promised action against everything from the foreign training of imams to “imposing menus that accommodate religious restrictions in cafeterias.” He also called for remaking the religion itself into “an Islam of the Enlightenment.” His tough-talking interior minister, meanwhile, is using the inflammatory language of the far right.

When Mr. Paty was murdered, Mr. Macron responded with a crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism, carrying out dozens of raids and vowing to shut down aid groups. He also made a vocal recommitment to secularism. Muslim leaders around the world criticized Mr. Macron’s and his aides’ aggressive response, which they said focused on peaceful Muslim groups. The president of Turkey called for boycotts of French products, as varied as cheese and cosmetics. The next month saw a new wave of attacks, including three murders in a Nice church and an explosion at a French ceremony in Saudi Arabia.

Some French grievances with the U.S. media are familiar from the U.S. culture wars — complaints about short-lived headlines and glib tweets by journalists. But their larger claim is that, after the attacks, English and American outlets immediately focused on failures in France’s policy toward Muslims rather than on the global terror threat. Mr. Macron was particularly enraged by a Financial Times opinion article on Nov. 3, “Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further,” which argued that he was alienating a Muslim majority that also hates terrorism. The article said he was attacking “Islamic separatism” when, in fact, he had used the word “Islamist.” Mr. Macron’s critics say he conflates religious observance and extremism, and the high-profile misquote — of his attempt to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism — infuriated him.

“I hate being pictured with words which are not mine,” Mr. Macron told me, and after a wave of complaints from readers and an angry call from Mr. Macron’s office, The Financial Times took the article off the internet — something a spokeswoman, Kristina Eriksson, said she couldn’t recall the publication ever having done before. The next day, the newspaper published a letter from Mr. Macron attacking the deleted article.

In late October, Politico Europe also deleted an op-ed article, “The dangerous French religion of secularism,” that it had solicited from a French sociologist. The piece set off a firestorm from critics who said the writer was blaming the victims of terrorism. But the hasty deletion prompted the author to complain of “outright censorship.” Politico Europe’s editor in chief, Stephen Brown, said that the article’s timing after the attack was inappropriate, but that he had apologized to the author for taking it down without explanation. He didn’t cite any specific errors. It was also the first time, he said, that Politico had ever taken down an opinion article.

But French complaints go beyond those opinion articles and to careful journalism that questions government policy. A skeptical Washington Post analysis from its Paris correspondent, James McAuley, “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam,’” drew heated objections for its raised eyebrow at the idea that “instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims,” the French government “aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith.” The New York Times drew a contrast between Mr. Macron’s ideological response and the Austrian chancellor’s more “conciliatory” address after a terror attack, and noted that the isolated young men carrying out attacks don’t neatly fit into the government’s focus on extremist networks. In the Times opinion pages, an op-ed asked bluntly, “Is France Fueling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?”

And then, of course, there are the tweets. The Associated Press deleted a tweet that asked why France “incites” anger in the Muslim world, saying it was a poor word choice for an article explaining anger at France in the Muslim world. The New York Times was roasted on Twitter and in the pages of Le Monde for a headline — which appeared briefly amid the chaos of the beheading — “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.” The Times headline quickly changed as French police confirmed details, but the screenshot remained.

“It’s as though we were in the smoking ruins of ground zero and they said we had it coming,” Mr. Macron’s spokeswoman, Anne-Sophie Bradelle, complained to Le Monde.

As any observer of American politics knows, it can be hard to untangle theatrical outrage and Twitter screaming matches from real differences in values. Mr. Macron argues that there are big questions at the heart of the matter.

“There is a sort of misunderstanding about what the European model is, and the French model in particular,” he said. “American society used to be segregationist before it moved to a multiculturalist model, which is essentially about coexistence of different ethnicities and religions next to one another.”

“Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist,” he said, outlining France’s longstanding insistence that its citizens not be categorized by identity. “In our society, I don’t care whether someone is Black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”

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Credit…Pool photo by Charles Platiau

Some of the coverage Mr. Macron complains about reflects a genuine difference of values. The French roll their eyes at America’s demonstrative Christianity. And Mr. Macron’s talk of head scarves and menus, along with the interior minister’s complaints about Halal food in supermarkets, clashes with the American emphasis on religious tolerance and the free expression protected by the First Amendment.

Such abstract ideological distinctions can seem distant from the everyday lives of France’s large ethnic minorities, who complain of police abuse, residential segregation and discrimination in the workplace. Mr. Macron’s October speech also acknowledged, unusually for a French leader, the role that the French government’s “ghettoization” of Muslims in the suburbs of Paris and other cities played in creating generations of alienated young Muslims. And some of the coverage that has most offended the French has simply reflected the views of Black and Muslim French people who don’t see the world the way French elites want them to.

Picking fights with American media is also an old sport in France, and it can be hard to know when talk of cultural differences is real and when it is intended to wave away uncomfortable realities. And reactionary French commentators have gone further than Mr. Macron in attacking the U.S. media, drawing energy from the American culture wars. A flame-throwing article in the French magazine Marianne blasted U.S. coverage and then appeared in English in Tablet with an added American flourish denouncing “simplistic woke morality plays.”

But the ideological gaps between French and American points of view can be deceptive. The French commentariat has also harped on the #metoo movement as an example of runaway American ideology. Pascal Bruckner, the well-known public intellectual, called the sexual abuse case against Roman Polanski “neo-feminist McCarthyism.” But perhaps the most prominent American journalism in France this year came from The Times’s Norimitsu Onishi, who played a central role in forcing France to grapple with the well-known pedophilia of a famous writer, Gabriel Matzneff. A recent profile in a French news site described Mr. Onishi and others as “kicking the anthill just by naming things” that had previously gone unspoken. Mr. Matzneff is now facing charges.

And Mr. Macron has his own political context: a desperate fight against a resurgent coronavirus, a weak economy and a political threat from the right. He is also disentangling himself from an early, unsuccessful attempt to build a relationship with President Trump. He had spoken to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. the day before our conversation.

I asked him whether his vocal complaints about the American media weren’t themselves a little Trumpian — advancing his agenda through high-profile attacks on the press.

Mr. Macron said he simply wanted himself and his country to be clearly understood. “My message here is: If you have any question on France, call me,” he said. (He has, in fact, never granted The Times’s Paris bureau an interview, which would be a nice start.)

And he recoiled at the comparison to Mr. Trump.

“I read your newspapers, I’m one of your readers,” he said.

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‘Stop the Steal’ Facebook Group Is Taken Down

OAKLAND, Calif. — The first post in the new Facebook group that was started on Wednesday was innocuous enough. “Welcome” to Stop the Steal, it said.

But an hour later, the group uploaded a minute-long video to its Facebook page with a pointed message. The grainy footage showed a crowd outside a polling station in Detroit, shouting and chanting “stop the count.” Below the video, which was quickly shared nearly 2,000 times, members of the group commented “Biden is stealing the vote” and “this is unfair.”

The viral video helped turn the Stop the Steal Facebook group into one of the fastest-growing groups in Facebook’s history. By Thursday morning, less than 22 hours after it was started, it had amassed more than 320,000 users — at one point gaining 100 new members every 10 seconds. As its momentum grew, it caught the attention of Facebook executives, who shut down the group hours later for trying to incite violence.

Even so, the Stop the Steal Facebook group had done its work. In its brief life span, it became a hub for people to falsely claim that the ballot count for the presidential election was being manipulated against President Trump. New photographs, videos and testimonials asserting voter fraud were posted to the group every few minutes. From there, they traveled onto Twitter, YouTube and right-wing sites that cited the unsubstantiated and inaccurate posts as evidence of an illegitimate voting process.

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Stop the Steal’s rapid rise and amplifying effects also showed how Facebook groups are a powerful tool for seeding and accelerating online movements, including those filled with misinformation. Facebook groups, which are public and can be joined by anyone with a Facebook account, have long been the nerve centers for fringe movements such as QAnon and anti-vaccination activists. And while Stop the Steal has been deleted, other Facebook groups promoting falsehoods about voter fraud have popped up.

“Facebook groups are powerful infrastructure for organizing,” said Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. She added that the Stop the Steal Facebook group helped people coalesce around a baseless belief that the election was being unlawfully taken from Mr. Trump.

Tom Reynolds, a Facebook spokesman, said the social network removed the Stop the Steal group as part of the “exceptional measures” it was taking on the election. “The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” he said.

Stop the Steal was born on Facebook on Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern time as the outcome of the presidential election remained uncertain. About 12 hours earlier, as the vote counts showed a tight race between Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump had posted without evidence on Facebook and Twitter that “They are trying to STEAL the Election.” Mr. Trump has since repeated that assertion openly in remarks from the White House and on social media.

The idea of a stolen election quickly spread among Mr. Trump’s supporters, including to a Facebook user named Kylie Jane Kremer. Ms. Kremer, 30, a former Tea Party activist, runs a conservative nonprofit called Women for America First. She created the Stop the Steal Facebook group.

In an interview on Thursday from a protest in Atlanta, Ms. Kremer said she had started the Facebook group after speaking with conservative activists and seeing social media posts about voter fraud. She said she wanted to help organize people across the United States on the issue and centralize discussions over protests and rallies.

“I knew other people saw this the same as I did, that there were people out there trying to steal the election from the rightful person,” Ms. Kremer said, referring to Mr. Trump. “I wanted us to be able to organize to take action.”

Once the Facebook group was live, she said, it took off. Hundreds of members joined within the first hour. Then people began sharing videos — including the one showing people chanting “stop the count” in Detroit — and photographs, which were quickly shared to other Facebook pages and groups.

”It was like lightning in a bottle,” Ms. Kremer said. “The group grew so fast we were struggling to keep up with the people trying to post.”

Many of the posts shared anecdotal stories claiming voter fraud or intimidation against Mr. Trump’s supporters. One post asserted that poll workers counting the ballots were wearing masks with the Biden campaign’s logo, while another said that Mr. Trump’s supporters were purposefully given faulty ballots that could not be read by machines.

Others posted about violence. One member of the Facebook group wrote on Wednesday, “This is going to take more than talk to fix.” Underneath that post, another member responded with emojis of explosions.

On Thursday morning, the Stop the Steal Facebook group’s growth skyrocketed further, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics tool.

That was when right-wing figures such as Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump activist, and Amy Kremer, Ms. Kremer’s mother and a founder of a group called Women for Trump, began posting about the Facebook group on Twitter. Ali Alexander, a political operative who previously went by the name Ali Akbar, also tweeted dozens of times about the Stop the Steal movement to his 140,000 Twitter followers.

Their messages, which were shared thousands of times, were a rallying cry for people to join the Stop the Steal Facebook group and take action in local protests against voter fraud.

“In just it’s first couple hours, more than 100,000 people joined the Women for America First, Stop the Steal Facebook Group,” wrote Mr. Posobiec. In comments below his post, many people cheered the Facebook group’s popularity.

The tweets helped send more people to Stop the Steal. Interactions with the Facebook group soared to 36 posts a minute on Thursday morning, up from roughly one post a minute, according to CrowdTangle data.

Mr. Posobiec, Mr. Alexander and Amy Kremer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

At Facebook, executives were notified of the group by Facebook moderators as they began flagging posts for potential calls for violence and protests to disrupt the vote. The company also received calls from journalists about the group and its explosive growth. By midmorning, executives were discussing whether they should remove Stop the Steal, said one employee involved in the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Facebook took down the group on Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern.

Ms. Kremer said that she was angry that Facebook had removed her group and that she was in discussions with the company to reinstate it. She accused Facebook, along with other social media companies, of censoring the Stop the Steal movement.

“Facebook had other options,” she said. “They were flagging our posts and we could have worked with them. But this is what they do, they censor.”

Still, Ms. Kremer said that before the group was taken down, its members had successfully organized events in dozens of cities. She has set up another website about voter fraud and was now directing people to it, she said.

On Facebook, dozens of new Stop the Steal groups have been created since the company removed Ms. Kremer’s group. One had nearly 10,000 members. Another had just over 2,000.

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Chinese Reporters in the U.S. Left Uncertain by Political Spat

Yuhui Chai came to the United States from China more than a dozen years ago, drawn by the country’s vibrant democratic values. She eventually found work as a journalist, relishing the chance to pursue hard-hitting stories and ask questions in a manner often discouraged in China’s authoritarian society.

Now Ms. Chai is among more than 100 Chinese news media employees in the United States caught in a heated dispute between Beijing and Washington over the rights of foreign journalists. Unable to secure a long-term visa amid new American restrictions, she has decided to leave her job this week to return to China.

“There’s no way to plan for the future,” said Ms. Chai, a New York-based correspondent who covers technology for SunTV, a Hong Kong news outlet. “It’s very painful.”

As the United States and China fight a broader geopolitical struggle over trade, technology, military policy, the coronavirus and other issues, the news media from both countries are caught in the middle.

The American government has put new limits on the number of employees at Chinese state media organizations, effectively forcing some to leave, and shortened the length of visas for Chinese media workers. China has expelled 17 foreign journalists, including some from The New York Times, and frozen the credentials of several others.

China in particular has long harassed and surveilled foreign journalists on its soil, but the new round of tit-for-tat restrictions risks cutting off a critical source of insight into both Chinese and American societies. American journalists in China have traditionally provided an important window into the country’s opaque government.

Chinese journalists in the United States, especially those working for commercial outlets, can play a role, too. While the majority of Chinese journalists in the United States work for the Chinese government’s flagship news outlets, including Xinhua and China Central Television, others represent more commercially minded organizations that strive to produce in-depth journalism. Though they have to abide by China’s strict censorship rules, they can help balance out the Communist Party’s propaganda machine back home.

The Trump administration says a tough approach is necessary to force Beijing to ease pressure on foreign news outlets. Critics argue the new rules are undermining America’s reputation as a bastion of civil liberties and giving Beijing an excuse to crack down on foreign news outlets even more.

“It has done huge damage to the ideals of freedom of the press and free speech,” said Yik Chan Chin, a lecturer in media and communication studies at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. “All these concepts have been significantly damaged during this war.”

Many of the Chinese journalists affected by the new restrictions came to the United States to escape severe controls on the news media in China, where journalists are routinely harassed, punished and imprisoned. Under Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, the government has all but eliminated investigative reporting and demanded media workers show unflinching loyalty to the party.

Now, faced with visa hassles and growing scrutiny of their work in the United States, some are considering changing jobs. Others are making plans to return home, saying in interviews they are tired of being seen as spies and propaganda workers.

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Credit…Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

The Trump administration has sought to portray Chinese reporters in the United States as foreign agents, designating nine Chinese news organizations as operatives of the Chinese state. David R. Stilwell, a top State Department official, said in a speech last week that workers at state-run outlets “masquerade as legitimate news reporters when their real business is propaganda and espionage.”

Chinese reporters say that portrayal is too simple. The more commercially minded outlets have somewhat more freedom in what they write or broadcast than official government outlets like Xinhua.

“In this age of great divides, it’s more important than ever to hear from more people,” said Du Chen, a reporter for a Chinese technology news site who left the United States earlier this year and has been unable to obtain a visa to return.

Mr. Du said smaller Chinese outlets in the United States have played an important role in dispelling stereotypes. “It still is very crucial to keep these journalists on the ground in U.S.,” he said, “if the U.S. government prefers a meaningful exchange of ideas rather than propaganda wars.”

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Credit…Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

In a move seemingly aimed at avoiding an escalation, American officials said this week they would allow Chinese journalists whose visas have expired to remain in the United States and apply to have their stays extended. Many are still awaiting word from the Department of Homeland Security on renewal applications they submitted months ago.

China remains angered by a decision from the Trump administration in May to limit visas for Chinese journalists to 90 days, a significant downgrade from the open-ended visas they used to receive. The Chinese Foreign Ministry this week accused the United States of subjecting Chinese journalists to “political persecution and suppression,” and vowed to take retaliatory measures.

China has already stopped renewing press credentials for several foreign reporters still in the mainland, raising the possibility of further expulsions. State-run news outlets have suggested Beijing could seek to impose limits on foreign journalists working in Hong Kong, a former British colony that has traditionally respected press freedoms, if the situation continues to escalate.

American officials, in response, say the Chinese government has ignored their requests to ease pressure on foreign news outlets. They have called on Chinese officials to reinstate reporters from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Times who were expelled earlier this year. The expelled reporters have no ties to government institutions or the Trump administration.

“Beijing’s actions prove time and again that the C.C.P. is afraid of independent and investigative media reporting,” a spokesman for the American embassy in Beijing said in a statement this week, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

An agreement between the United States and China to ease tensions on the news media, while still elusive, could eventually lay the groundwork for more cooperation between the two countries, experts say.

A compromise could help reduce friction between the two countries at a tense moment, said Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor and an expert on China.

“These steps will set the tone for the series of broader compromises that have to be attempted regarding more major issues,” Mr. Cohen said, pointing to climate change, trade, arms control and other challenges.

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Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

For Chinese journalists, the sharp deterioration in relations has been dispiriting.

Many say they have appreciated the chance to report in a relatively free environment on a variety of contentious issues, such as politics, religion and ethnic divisions — subjects that are typically restricted in China.

“I feel myself breathing again in an open society,” said Helen Zhang, a journalist from China who works in the United States. “Chinese journalism is not dead, but homeless.”

Ms. Chai, the reporter for SunTV, said she is considering leaving journalism once she returns to China, in part because of limits on free speech there. She said she worries the United States is isolating itself by making it harder for foreigners to report in the country.

“The United States should be giving positive messages to those who support democracy and freedom, instead of punishing everyone,” she said. “If your policies are driven by fear, driven by a kind of hostility, that creates very big problems.”

Albee Zhang contributed research.

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Facebook and Twitter Dodge a 2016 Repeat, and Ignite a 2020 Firestorm

Since 2016, when Russian hackers and WikiLeaks injected stolen emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign into the closing weeks of the presidential race, politicians and pundits have called on tech companies to do more to fight the threat of foreign interference.

On Wednesday, less than a month from another election, we saw what “doing more” looks like.

Early Wednesday morning, the New York Post published a splashy front-page article about supposedly incriminating photos and emails found on a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, the son of Joseph R. Biden Jr. To many Democrats, the unsubstantiated article — which included a bizarre set of details involving a Delaware computer repair shop, the F.B.I. and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer — smelled suspiciously like the result of a hack-and-leak operation.

To be clear, there is no evidence tying the Post’s report to a foreign disinformation campaign. Many questions remain about how the paper obtained the emails and whether they were authentic. Even so, the social media companies were taking no chances.

Within hours, Twitter banned all links to the Post’s article, and locked the accounts of people, including some journalists and the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who tweeted it. The company said it made the move because the article contained images showing private personal information, and because it viewed the article as a violation of its rules against distributing hacked material.

On Thursday, the company partly backtracked, saying it would no longer remove hacked content unless it was shared directly by hackers or their accomplices.

Facebook took a less nuclear approach. It said that it would reduce the visibility of the article on its service until it could be fact-checked by a third party, a policy it has applied to other sensitive posts. (The move did not seem to damage the article’s prospects; by Wednesday night, stories about Hunter Biden’s emails were among the most-engaged posts on Facebook.)

Both decisions angered a chorus of Republicans, who called for Facebook and Twitter to be sued, stripped of their legal protections, or forced to account for their choices. Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, called in a tweet for Twitter and Facebook to be subpoenaed by Congress to testify about censorship, accusing them of trying to “hijack American democracy by censoring the news & controlling the expression of Americans.”

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A few caveats: There is still a lot we still don’t know about the Post article. We don’t know if the emails it describes are authentic, fake or some combination of both, or if the events they purport to describe actually happened. Mr. Biden’s campaign denied the central claims in the article, and a Biden campaign surrogate lashed out against the Post on Wednesday, calling the article “Russian disinformation.”

Even if the emails are authentic, we don’t know how they were obtained, or how they ended up in the possession of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, who has been spearheading efforts to paint Mr. Biden and his family as corrupt. The owner of the Delaware computer shop who reportedly turned over the laptop to investigators gave several conflicting accounts to reporters about the laptop’s chain of custody on Wednesday.

Critics on all sides can quibble with the decisions these companies made, or how they communicated them. Even Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said the company had mishandled the original explanation for the ban.

But the truth is less salacious than a Silicon Valley election-rigging attempt. Since 2016, lawmakers, researchers and journalists have pressured these companies to take more and faster action to prevent false or misleading information from spreading on their services. The companies have also created new policies governing the distribution of hacked material, in order to prevent a repeat of 2016’s debacle.

It’s true that banning links to a story published by a 200-year-old American newspaper — albeit one that is now a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid — is a more dramatic step than cutting off WikiLeaks or some lesser-known misinformation purveyor. Still, it’s clear that what Facebook and Twitter were actually trying to prevent was not free expression, but a bad actor using their services as a conduit for a damaging cyberattack or misinformation.

These decisions get made quickly, in the heat of the moment, and it’s possible that more contemplation and debate would produce more satisfying choices. But time is a luxury these platforms don’t always have. In the past, they have been slow to label or remove dangerous misinformation about Covid-19, mail-in voting and more, and have only taken action after the bad posts have gone viral, defeating the purpose.

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Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Since the companies made those decisions, Republican officials began using the actions as an example of Silicon Valley censorship run amok. On Wednesday, several prominent Republicans, including Mr. Trump, repeated their calls for Congress to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that shields tech platforms from many lawsuits over user-generated content.

That leaves the companies in a precarious spot. They are criticized when they allow misinformation to spread. They are also criticized when they try to prevent it.

Perhaps the strangest idea to emerge in the past couple of days, though, is that these services are only now beginning to exert control over what we see. Representative Doug Collins, Republican of Georgia, made this point in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, in which he derided the social network for using “its monopoly to control what news Americans have access to.”

The truth, of course, is that tech platforms have been controlling our information diets for years, whether we realized it or not. Their decisions were often buried in obscure “community standards” updates, or hidden in tweaks to the black-box algorithms that govern which posts users see. But make no mistake: These apps have never been neutral, hands-off conduits for news and information. Their leaders have always been editors masquerading as engineers.

What’s happening now is simply that, as these companies move to rid their platforms of bad behavior, their influence is being made more visible. Rather than letting their algorithms run amok (which is an editorial choice in itself), they’re making high-stakes decisions about flammable political misinformation in full public view, with human decision makers who can be debated and held accountable for their choices. That’s a positive step for transparency and accountability, even if it feels like censorship to those who are used to getting their way.

After years of inaction, Facebook and Twitter are finally starting to clean up their messes. And in the process, they’re enraging the powerful people who have thrived under the old system.

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