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Twitter Changes Course After Republicans Claim ‘Election Interference’

SAN FRANCISCO — President Trump called Facebook and Twitter “terrible” and “a monster” and said he would go after them. Senators Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn said they would subpoena the chief executives of the companies for their actions. And on Fox News, prominent conservative hosts blasted the social media platforms as “monopolies” and accused them of “censorship” and election interference.

On Thursday, simmering discontent among Republicans over the power that Facebook and Twitter wield over public discourse erupted into open acrimony. Republicans slammed the companies and baited them a day after the sites limited or blocked the distribution of an unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

For a while, Twitter doubled down. It locked the personal account of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, late Wednesday after she posted the article, and on Thursday it briefly blocked a link to a House Judiciary Committee webpage. The Trump campaign said Twitter had also locked its official account after it tried promoting the article. Twitter then prohibited the spread of a different New York Post article about the Bidens.

But late Thursday, under pressure, Twitter said it was changing the policy that it had used to block the New York Post article and would now allow similar content to be shared, along with a label to provide context about the source of the information. Twitter said it was concerned that the earlier policy was leading to unintended consequences.

Even so, the actions brought the already frosty relationship between conservatives and the companies to a new low point, less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election, in which the social networks are expected to play a significant role. It offered a glimpse at how online conversations could go awry on Election Day. And Twitter’s bob-and-weave in particular underlined how the companies have little handle on how to consistently enforce what they will allow on their sites.

“There will be battles for control of the narrative again and again over coming weeks,” said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies social media companies. “The way the platforms handled it is not a good harbinger of what’s to come.”

Facebook declined to comment on Thursday and pointed to its comments on Wednesday when it said the New York Post article, which made unverified claims about Hunter Biden’s business in Ukraine, was eligible for third-party fact-checking. Among the concerns was that the article cited purported emails from Hunter Biden that may have been obtained in a hack, though it is unclear how the paper obtained the messages and whether they were authentic.

Twitter had said it was blocking the New York Post article partly because it had a policy of not sharing what might be hacked material. But late Thursday, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, said the policy was too sweeping and could end up blocking content from journalists and whistle-blowers. As a result, she said, Twitter was changing course.

Ms. Gadde added that Twitter would continue blocking links to or images from the article if they contained email addresses and other private information, which violated the company’s privacy policy.

Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday that “it is only the beginning” for the social media companies. He followed up on Thursday by saying he wanted to “strip them” of some of their liability protections.

For years, Mr. Trump and other Republicans have accused Facebook and Twitter, which have headquarters in liberal Silicon Valley, of anti-conservative bias. In 2018, Mr. Trump said the companies, along with Google, “have to be careful” and claimed, without evidence, that they were intentionally suppressing conservative news outlets supportive of his administration.

That issue has since come up repeatedly at Capitol Hill hearings, including in July when the chief executives of Facebook and Google, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, testified on antitrust issues.

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Tensions have also been running high for Twitter and Facebook as they aim to avoid a replay of the 2016 election, when Russians used their sites to spread inflammatory messages to divide Americans. In recent weeks, the companies have said they will clamp down on misinformation before and after Election Day, such as by banning content related to the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon and slowing down the way information flows on their networks.

But with Mr. Trump trailing Mr. Biden in the polls, the companies’ handling of the New York Post article has ruptured any truce they had managed to strike with conservatives.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, asked the Federal Election Commission in a letter on Wednesday to investigate whether the companies’ actions could be considered an in-kind contribution to Mr. Biden’s campaign.

“I think it really is a new frontier,” Mr. Hawley said in an interview. “It will also lead to a new openness on the Republican side to think about what we are going to do about their monopoly power.”

Mr. Cruz, of Texas, and Ms. Blackburn, of Tennessee, said on Thursday that they would subpoena Mr. Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, for a hearing on what they deemed “election interference.”

“I’m looking forward to asking Jack and Mark about silencing media that go against their political beliefs,” Ms. Blackburn said in a tweet.

Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, sent Mr. Dorsey a letter excoriating Twitter for blocking the article and asking for a detailed summary of the process behind the decision.

Mr. Pichai, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey have already agreed to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on Oct. 28 about the federal law that shields their platforms from lawsuits. Conservatives have called for changes to the law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes it impossible to sue web platforms over much of the content posted by their users or how they choose to moderate it.

“Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech,” Mr. Pai said in a statement. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”

Mr. Trump was even more pointed, saying in a tweet on Thursday that the companies needed to be deprived of their Section 230 protections “immediately.”

Others applauded the aggressiveness of the social media companies.

“The actions taken by Facebook, Twitter and Google show that these platform companies are indeed willing to enforce their existing policies, in particular around ‘hack and leak’ material,” said Shannon McGregor, senior researcher with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Unlike previous criticism of Facebook and Twitter for acting too slowly in taking down content, the uproar this time has centered on how they may have acted too hastily. (The exception was Google’s YouTube, which said after about 36 hours that it would allow a New York Post video about the article to remain up without restrictions.)

The speed with which Facebook moved was uncharacteristic, fueled by how quickly the article took off online and the sensitivity of the material, according to two Facebook employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Within three hours after The New York Post published its article on Wednesday, Facebook said it would reduce the distribution of the piece across the network so that it would appear less frequently in users’ individual News Feeds, one of the most highly viewed sections of the app.

The company billed it as part of its “standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman. That process included spotting some “signals” that a piece of content might be false, according to Facebook’s guidelines for content moderation. The company has not clarified what those signals were.

Twitter then went further by blocking people from linking to the article altogether. That meant the article could not circulate at all on Twitter, even in private messages between users.

The backlash was instant. Republicans immediately tested the limits of Twitter’s rules, with some tweeting screenshots of the article. Francis Brennan, the director of strategic response for the Trump campaign, posted the entire article in a string of 44 tweets. The article was also copied and published on the webpage of the House Judiciary Committee’s Republican minority.

Twitter scrambled to keep up. If tweets with the screenshots showed the emails, the company removed them. Mr. Brennan’s tweets were allowed to remain because they did not include the emails.

Late Wednesday, as the furor grew, Twitter tried to address it. “We know we have more work to do to provide clarity in our product when we enforce our rules in this manner,” a spokesman tweeted.

Twitter also said people whose accounts were locked could easily change that by simply deleting the offending tweet.

Also late Wednesday, Mr. Dorsey criticized his company’s communication about the decision, saying it was “unacceptable” to give “zero context” about the action.

Internally, Mr. Dorsey griped to employees that users weren’t given a sufficient explanation when prevented from sharing the New York Post article, a person with knowledge of the comments said.

Twitter’s hacked-material policy was written in 2018, with blocking links the main course of action. The company has since increasingly opted to label tweets, adding context or saying if they glorified violence.

But Twitter had not updated the hacked-material policy. So when the New York Post article appeared, and questions about the emails’ origin were raised, the only system it had was to block the content.

“We are no longer limited to tweet removal as an enforcement action,” Ms. Gadde said late Thursday.

Mike Isaac reported from San Francisco and Kate Conger from Oakland, Calif. Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed reporting from Oakland, David McCabe from Washington, and Tiffany Hsu from Hoboken, N.J.

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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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U.S. Judge Temporarily Halts Trump’s WeChat Ban

WASHINGTON — A federal judge has issued an injunction against President Trump’s executive order effectively banning the Chinese social media app WeChat from operating in the United States after midnight on Sunday, presenting at least a temporary setback in the president’s efforts to block an app that he has labeled a national security threat.

The ruling, which came Sunday morning, will temporarily halt Mr. Trump’s efforts to bar WeChat, which is owned by the Chinese company Tencent Holdings, from carrying out commercial transactions in the United States. The Trump administration has said the app offers China a conduit to collect data on Americans and to censor the news and information shared by WeChat’s more than a billion monthly active users.

In her decision, Judge Laurel Beeler of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California said that she had chosen to grant the motion because the plaintiffs had raised serious questions about whether the order would harm First Amendment rights. She also said that it placed significant hardship on the plaintiffs, who had argued that it would shut down the primary means of communication for the Chinese community.

The U.S. government could now appeal to the Ninth Circuit court to seek to overturn the stay. A Justice Department spokeswoman said Sunday that the department is reviewing the order.

The motion for a preliminary injunction was filed Aug. 27 by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a nonprofit group whose trustees include several prominent Chinese-American lawyers. The group says it has no connection to Tencent Holdings or any of its affiliates.

The alliance has argued that Mr. Trump’s attempt to ban WeChat violates several constitutional provisions, including the right to free speech, due process and equal protection against arbitrary discrimination.

In a statement, the group called the ruling “an important and hard-fought victory” against an order that was “a serious violation of the Constitutional rights of WeChat users in the U.S.”

WeChat has been downloaded nearly 22 million times in the United States since 2014, or about 7 percent of its downloads outside China.

The injunction is the latest twist in an increasingly aggressive confrontation between the United States and China over which country will dominate the global technology landscape. The Trump administration has taken aim at Chinese tech and telecom companies, including WeChat, TikTok and Huawei, claiming they are beholden to the Chinese government and pose a national security threat. In part, the administration has pointed to a 2017 Chinese law that requires Chinese companies to support, provide assistance and cooperate in China’s national intelligence work, wherever they operate.

While the United States has long argued for an open global internet, Mr. Trump’s bans against foreign services like WeChat and TikTok have begun to reverse that trend. His moves echo earlier actions by China, which has long banned American services like Twitter and Facebook that it cannot censor directly.

But while Chinese officials can dictate which companies are allowed to operate in that country, U.S. law prevents Mr. Trump from having the same kind of iron fist to quash foreign business.

“What this shows is that in the American system, there are still limits to how much the executive branch can unilaterally influence and control private sector businesses,” said Geoffrey Gertz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, calling it a “key difference from China.”

“Although the Trump administration is clearly trying to push these limits, it is still constrained,” Mr. Gertz said. “Businesses have channels for pushing back, such as through the court system, that aren’t necessarily available in other places like China.”

Thomas R. Burke, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said they were “grateful” for the decision.

“Never before has a president sought to ban an entire social media platform — used by a minority community to communicate — with such discriminatory animus and haste,” he said.

In their arguments, the plaintiffs also pointed to the president’s anti-Chinese statements around the time he issued the WeChat order — including referring to the coronavirus pandemic as the “China flu,” and saying that China would own the United States if he was not re-elected — arguing that such comments were aimed at bolstering his re-election campaign.

The U.S. government, in arguing its side, described China’s tech industry as a threat to national security, citing reports that identified Tencent and WeChat as a growing risk and a source of censorship and Chinese government propaganda. At a hearing before Judge Beeler on Saturday, a lawyer from the Justice Department said that the order was well tailored to address the threat “posed by WeChat and not penalize people who speak only for the purpose of providing their personal or business information.”

The legal battle followed a surprise executive order on Aug. 6 signed by Mr. Trump that would bar any commercial transactions with WeChat or the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok by any person or involving any property within the jurisdiction of the United States. The administration threatened fines of up to $1 million and up to 20 years in prison for violations of the order.

In rules issued on Friday, the Commerce Department said it would bar both WeChat and TikTok from American app stores beginning Sunday and would prohibit certain transactions between WeChat and American companies. The administration had given TikTok a reprieve on tougher measures until Nov. 12.

But on Saturday, the president approved an investment in TikTok by American software maker Oracle and Walmart that he said would resolve his national security concerns, and the Commerce Department said it would delay its penalties on TikTok by at least one week.

Given the judge’s ruling on Sunday, neither of the apps will be banned as of midnight Sunday.

Tencent declined to comment. The Commerce Department did not provide an immediate response.

In a declaration filed in August in support of the lawsuit, Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, compared the executive order to a “complete ban of a newspaper, a TV channel, or a website used by the tens of millions of U.S. citizens.”

“Never has the government tried to shut down entirely a public forum used by millions of Americans,” Mr. Chemerinsky wrote, calling it an “unprecedented” restriction on speech that was motivated by “anti-Chinese animus.”

“The chilling effect on the exercise of free speech caused by the Executive Order is profound and constitutionally unsupportable,” he added.

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Forget TikTok. China’s Powerhouse App Is WeChat.

Just after the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Joanne Li realized the app that connected her to fellow Chinese immigrants had disconnected her from reality.

Everything she saw on the Chinese app, WeChat, indicated Donald J. Trump was an admired leader and impressive businessman. She believed it was the unquestioned consensus on the newly elected American president. “But then I started talking to some foreigners about him, non-Chinese,” she said. “I was totally confused.”

She began to read more widely, and Ms. Li, who lived in Toronto at the time, increasingly found WeChat filled with gossip, conspiracy theories and outright lies. One article claimed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada planned to legalize hard drugs. Another rumor purported that Canada had begun selling marijuana in grocery stores. A post from a news account in Shanghai warned Chinese people to take care lest they accidentally bring the drug back from Canada and get arrested.

She also questioned what was being said about China. When a top Huawei executive was arrested in Canada in 2018, articles from foreign news media were quickly censored on WeChat. Her Chinese friends both inside and outside China began to say that Canada had no justice, which contradicted her own experience. “All of a sudden I discovered talking to others about the issue didn’t make sense,” Ms. Li said. “It felt like if I only watched Chinese media, all of my thoughts would be different.”

Ms. Li had little choice but to take the bad with the good. Built to be everything for everyone, WeChat is indispensable.

For most Chinese people in China, WeChat is a sort of all-in-one app: a way to swap stories, talk to old classmates, pay bills, coordinate with co-workers, post envy-inducing vacation photos, buy stuff and get news. For the millions of members of China’s diaspora, it is the bridge that links them to the trappings of home, from family chatter to food photos.

Woven through it all is the ever more muscular surveillance and propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party. As WeChat has become ubiquitous, it has become a powerful tool of social control, a way for Chinese authorities to guide and police what people say, whom they talk to and what they read.

It has even extended Beijing’s reach beyond its borders. When secret police issue threats abroad, they often do so on WeChat. When military researchers working undercover in the United States needed to talk to China’s embassies, they used WeChat, according to court documents. The party coordinates via WeChat with members studying overseas.

As a cornerstone of China’s surveillance state, WeChat is now considered a national security threat in the United States. The Trump administration has proposed banning WeChat outright, along with the Chinese short video app TikTok. Overnight, two of China’s biggest internet innovations became a new front in the sprawling tech standoff between China and the United States.

While the two apps are lumped in the same category by the Trump administration, they represent two distinct approaches to the Great Firewall that blocks Chinese access to foreign websites.

The hipper, better-known TikTok was designed for the wild world outside of China’s cloistering censorship; it exists only beyond China’s borders. By hiving off an independent app to win over global users, TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, created the best bet any Chinese start-up has had to compete with the internet giants in the West. The separation of TikTok from its cousin apps in China, along with deep popularity, has fed corporate campaigns in the United States to save it, even as Beijing potentially upended any deals by labeling its core technology a national security priority.

Though WeChat has different rules for users inside and outside of China, it remains a single, unified social network spanning China’s Great Firewall. In that sense, it has helped bring Chinese censorship to the world. A ban would cut dead millions of conversations between family and friends, a reason one group has filed a lawsuit to block the Trump administration’s efforts. It would also be an easy victory for American policymakers seeking to push back against China’s techno-authoritarian overreach.

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Credit…The New York Times

Ms. Li felt the whipcrack of China’s internet controls firsthand when she returned to China in 2018 to take a real estate job. After her experience overseas, she sought to balance her news diet with groups that shared articles on world events. As the coronavirus spread in early 2020 and China’s relations with countries around the world strained, she posted an article on WeChat from the U.S. government-run Radio Free Asia about the deterioration of Chinese-Canadian diplomacy, a piece that would have been censored.

The next day, four police officers showed up at her family’s apartment. They carried guns and riot shields.

“My mother was terrified,” she said. “She turned white when she saw them.”

The police officers took Ms. Li, along with her phone and computer, to the local police station. She said they manacled her legs to a restraining device known as a tiger chair for questioning. They asked repeatedly about the article and her WeChat contacts overseas before locking her in a barred cell for the night.

Twice she was released, only to be dragged back to the station for fresh interrogation sessions. Ms. Li said an officer even insisted China had freedom of speech protections as he questioned her over what she had said online. “I didn’t say anything,” she said. “I just thought, what is your freedom of speech? Is it the freedom to drag me down to the police station and keep me night after sleepless night interrogating me?”

Finally, the police forced her to write out a confession and vow of support for China, then let her go.

WeChat started out as a simple copycat. Its parent, the Chinese internet giant Tencent, had built an enormous user base on a chat app designed for personal computers. But a new generation of mobile chat apps threatened to upset its hold over the way young Chinese talked to one another.

The visionary Tencent engineer Allen Zhang fired off a message to the company founder, Pony Ma, concerned that they weren’t keeping up. The missive led to a new mandate, and Mr. Zhang fashioned a digital Swiss Army knife that became a necessity for daily life in China. WeChat piggybacked on the popularity of the other online platforms run by Tencent, combining payments, e-commerce and social media into a single service.

It became a hit, eventually eclipsing the apps that inspired WeChat. And Tencent, which made billions in profits from the online games piped into its disparate platforms, now had a way to make money off nearly every aspect of a person’s digital identity — by serving ads, selling stuff, processing payments and facilitating services like food delivery.

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Credit…Wu Hong/EPA

The tech world inside and outside of China marveled. Tencent rival Alibaba scrambled to come up with its own product to compete. Silicon Valley studied the ways it mixed services and followed its cues.

Built for China’s closed world of internet services, WeChat’s only failure came outside the Great Firewall. Tencent made a big marketing push overseas, even hiring the soccer player Lionel Messi as a spokesman in some markets. For non-China users, it created a separate set of rules. International accounts would not face direct censorship and data would be stored on servers overseas.

But WeChat didn’t have the same appeal without the many services available only in China. It looked more prosaic outside the country, like any other chat app. The main overseas users, in the end, would be the Chinese diaspora.

Tencent did not respond to a request for comment.

Over time, the distinctions between the Chinese and international app have mattered less. Chinese people who create accounts within China, but then leave, carry with them a censored and monitored account. If international users chat with users inside China, their posts can be censored.

For news and gossip, most comes from WeChat users inside China and spreads out to the world. Whereas most social networks have myriad filter bubbles that reinforce different biases, WeChat is dominated by one super-filter bubble, and it hews closely to the official propaganda narratives.

“The filter bubbles on WeChat have nothing to do with algorithms — they come from China’s closed internet ecosystem and censorship. That makes them worse than other social media,” said Fang Kecheng, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Mr. Fang first noticed the limitations of WeChat in 2018 as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching an online course in media literacy to younger Chinese.

Soft-spoken and steeped in the media echo chambers of the United States and China, Mr. Fang expected to reach mostly curious Chinese inside China. An unexpected group dialed into the classes: Chinese immigrants and expatriates living in the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

“It seemed obvious. Because they were all outside China, it should be easy for them to gain an understanding of foreign media. In their day-to-day life they would see it and read it,” Mr. Fang said. “I realized it wasn’t the case. They were outside of China, but their media environment was still entirely inside China, their channel for information was all from public accounts on WeChat.”

Mr. Fang’s six-week online courses were inspired by a WeChat account he ran called News Lab that sought to teach readers about journalism. With his courses, he assigned articles from media like Reuters along with work sheets that taught students to analyze the pieces — pushing them to draw distinctions between pundit commentary and primary sourcing.

During one course in 2019, he focused on the fire at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which inspired many conspiracy theories on WeChat. One professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University reposted an article alleging that Muslims were behind the fire, which was untrue.

The classes were a big draw. In 2018, Mr. Fang attracted 500 students. The next year he got 1,300. In 2020, a year of coronavirus rumors and censorship, Tencent took down his News Lab account. He decided it was not safe to teach the class on another platform given the more “hostile” climate toward foreign media.

Still, he said that blocking WeChat would be unlikely to help much, as users could easily switch to other Chinese apps filled with propaganda and rumors. A better idea would be to create rules that force social media companies like Tencent to be more transparent, he said.

Creating such internet blocks, he said, rarely improved the quality of information.

“Information is like water. Water quality can be improved, but without any flow, water easily grows fetid,” he said.

In a class in 2019, he warned broadly about barriers to information flow.

“Now, the walls are getting higher and higher. The ability to see the outside has become ever harder,” he said. “Not just in China, but in much of the world.”

When Ferkat Jawdat’s mother disappeared into China’s sprawling system of re-education camps to indoctrinate Uighurs, his WeChat became a kind of memorial.

The app might have been used as evidence against her. But he, like many Uighurs, found himself opening WeChat again and again. It contained years of photos and conversations with his mother. It also held a remote hope he clung to, that one day she would again reach out.

When against all odds she did, the secret police followed.

If propaganda and censorship have found their way to WeChat users overseas, so too has China’s government.

For ethnic minority Uighurs, who have been targeted by draconian digital controls at home in China, the chat app has become a conduit for threats from Chinese security forces. In court documents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said China’s embassies communicated on WeChat with military researchers who had entered the United States to steal scientific research. The Chinese Communist Party has used it to keep up ties and organize overseas members, including foreign-exchange students.

Not all uses are nefarious. During the pandemic, local governments used the app to update residents traveling and living abroad about the virus. China’s embassies use it to issue travel warnings.

While the Chinese government could use any chat app, WeChat has advantages. Police know well its surveillance capabilities. Within China most accounts are linked to the real identity of users.

Mr. Jawdat’s mother, sick and worn, was released from the camps in the summer of 2019. Chinese police gave her a phone and signed her into WeChat. At the sound of his mother’s voice Mr. Jawdat fought back a flood of emotions. He hadn’t been sure if she was even alive. Despite the relief, he noticed something was off. She offered stilted words of praise for the Chinese Communist Party.

Then the police reached out to him. They approached him with an anonymous friend request over WeChat. When he accepted, a man introduced himself as a high-ranking officer in China’s security forces in the Xinjiang region, the epicenter of re-education camps. The man had a proposal. If Mr. Jawdat, an American citizen and Uighur activist, would quiet his attempts to raise awareness about the camps, then his mother might be given a passport and allowed to join her family in the United States.

“It was a kind of threat,” he said. “I stayed quiet for two or three weeks, just to see what he did.”

It all came to nothing. After turning down a media interview and skipping a speaking event, Mr. Jawdat grew impatient and confronted the man. “He started threatening me, saying, ‘You’re only one person going against the superpower. Compared to China, you are nothing.’”

The experience gave Mr. Jawdat little tolerance for the app that made the threats possible, even if it had been his only line to his mother. He said he knew two other Uighur Americans who had similar experiences. Accounts from others point to similar occurrences around the world.

“I don’t know if it’s karma or justice served, for the Chinese people to also feel the pain of what it’s like to lose contact with your family members,” Mr. Jawdat said of the proposed ban by the Trump administration. “There are many Chinese officials who have their kids in the U.S. WeChat must be one of the tools they use to keep in contact. If they feel this pain, maybe they can relate better to the Uighurs.”

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Credit…Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Ms. Li was late to the WeChat party. Away in Toronto when it exploded in popularity, she joined only in 2013, after her sister’s repeated urging.

It opened up a new world for her. Not in China, but in Canada.

She found people nearby similar to her. Many of her Chinese friends were on it. They found restaurants nearly as good as those at home and explored the city together. One public account set up by a Chinese immigrant organized activities. It kindled more than a few romances. “It was incredibly fun to be on WeChat,” she recalled.

Now the app reminds her of jail. During questioning, police told her that a surveillance system, which they called Skynet, flagged the link she shared. Sharing a name with the A.I. from the Terminator movies, Skynet is a real-life techno-policing system, one of several Beijing has spent billions to create.

The surveillance push has supported a fast-growing force of internet police. The group prowls services like WeChat for posts deemed politically sensitive, anything from a link to a joke mocking leader Xi Jinping. To handle WeChat’s hundreds of millions of users and their conversations, software analyzes keywords, links and images to generate leads.

Although Ms. Li registered her account in Canada, she fell under Chinese rules when she was back in China. Even outside of China, traffic on WeChat appears to be feeding these automated systems of control. A report from Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based research group, showed that Tencent surveilled images and files sent by WeChat users outside of China to help train its censorship algorithms within China. In effect, even when overseas users of WeChat are not being censored, the app learns from them how to better censor.

Wary of falling into automated traps, Ms. Li now writes with typos. Instead of referring directly to police, she uses a pun she invented, calling them golden forks. She no longer shares links from news sites outside of WeChat and holds back her inclination to talk politics.

Still, to be free she would have to delete WeChat, and she can’t do that. As the coronavirus crisis struck China, her family used it to coordinate food orders during lockdowns. She also needs a local government health code featured on the app to use public transport or enter stores.

“I want to switch to other chat apps, but there’s no way,” she said.

“If there were a real alternative I would change, but WeChat is terrible because there is no alternative. It’s too closely tied to life. For shopping, paying, for work, you have to use it,” she said. “If you jump to another app, then you are alone.”

Lin Qiqing contributed research.

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Facial Recognition Start-Up Mounts a First Amendment Defense

Floyd Abrams, one of the most prominent First Amendment lawyers in the country, has a new client: the facial recognition company Clearview AI.

Litigation against the start-up “has the potential of leading to a major decision about the interrelationship between privacy claims and First Amendment defenses in the 21st century,” Mr. Abrams said in a phone interview. He said the underlying legal questions could one day reach the Supreme Court.

Clearview AI has scraped billions of photos from the internet, including from platforms like LinkedIn and Instagram, and sells access to the resulting database to law enforcement agencies. When an officer uploads a photo or a video image containing a person’s face, the app tries to match the likeness and provides other photos of that person that can be found online.

To its critics, the company represents a grave new threat to privacy — making it possible for the government and corporate clients to identify nearly anyone with just a photograph. In addition to gathering pictures of people without their consent, Clearview AI’s software analyzes the images, generating a unique faceprint of each individual. Mr. Abrams will argue that what the company has done is a form of speech, protected by the Constitution.

After The New York Times revealed the existence of Clearview AI in January, lawsuits were filed against the company in Illinois, California, Virginia and New York, alleging violations of privacy laws and seeking class-action status. Most of the suits have been transferred to New York’s Southern District, under Judge Colleen McMahon. Mr. Abrams plans to file his notice to appear in those cases this week.

The company also faces two lawsuits filed in state courts: one from Vermont’s attorney general and one from the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois, where a statute forbids the corporate use of residents’ faceprints without explicit consent.

Clearview AI is also represented by Tor Ekeland, a lawyer known for representing hackers, and Lee Wolosky of Jenner & Block. In addition to Mr. Abrams’s plans to assert a free-speech right to disseminate publicly available photos, the company plans to challenge the applicability of the Illinois law to a company based in New York.

Mr. Abrams’s long career working on free-speech cases started when he represented The Times in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, arguing that the paper had the right to publish classified documents. He has since argued 13 cases before the Supreme Court, and is now senior counsel at Cahill Gordon & Reindel.

“Floyd Abrams is without peer as the nation’s pre-eminent First Amendment attorney, and it is clear that there are potentially groundbreaking First Amendment issues relating to the cases involving Clearview AI,” said Lisa Linden, a spokeswoman for the company.

In recent years, Mr. Abrams has sought to protect the speech rights of corporations including Standard & Poor’s and the tobacco company Lorillard. He worked most notably on the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court ruled a decade ago that the government can’t restrict how much companies, nonprofits and other associations spend on political ads.

Mr. Abrams said he had not heard of Clearview AI before Richard Schwartz, a company co-founder, called him last month “out of the blue.”

“He described it to me very broadly and asked if I would be interested,” Mr. Abrams said. “I found it really interesting. Here we have 21st-century judges addressing 21st-century technology to see if they’re consistent with an 18th-century document.”

Mr. Abrams said that in his view, while the technology involved was novel, the premise of the cases was a company’s right to create and disseminate information.

“Privacy is an extremely important value,” Mr. Abrams said. “One of the great opinions that one learns in law school is Justice Brandeis saying the right to be let alone was one of the most crucial elements of life in a free society.

“That said,” he continued, “where there is a direct clash between privacy claims and well-established First Amendment norms, what would otherwise be appropriate manners of protecting privacy have to give way before the constitutional limitations imposed by the First Amendment.”

Mr. Abrams pointed to a 2011 case in which the Supreme Court, citing the First Amendment, ruled that Vermont could not prohibit pharmacies from selling information about what drugs a doctor had prescribed.

Mr. Abrams, 84, said he had not been able to see Clearview AI’s app in action, because the pandemic had kept him from meeting with anyone at the company in person and because he didn’t own a smartphone.

“I’m learning the language,” Mr. Abrams said. “I’ve never used the words ‘facial biometric algorithms’ until this phone call.”

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Facebook Decisions Were ‘Setbacks for Civil Rights,’ Audit Finds

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook has not done enough to fight discrimination on its platform and has made some decisions that were “significant setbacks for civil rights,” according to a new independent audit of the company’s policies and practices.

In a 100-page prepublication report, which was obtained by The New York Times, the social network was repeatedly faulted for not having the infrastructure for handling civil rights and for prioritizing free expression on its platform over nondiscrimination. In some decisions, Facebook did not seek civil rights expertise, the auditors said, potentially setting a “terrible” precedent that could affect the November general election and other speech issues.

“Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression,” wrote the auditors, Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace, who are civil rights experts and lawyers. They said they had “vigorously advocated for more and would have liked to see the company go further to address civil rights concerns in a host of areas.”

The report, which was the culmination of two years of examination of the social network, was another blow for the Silicon Valley company. Facebook has been under pressure for allowing hate speech, misinformation and other content that can go against people’s civil rights to fester on its site. While rivals like Twitter, Snap and Reddit have all taken action in recent weeks to label, downplay or ban such content, Facebook has said it will not do so because it believes in free speech.

That has spurred civil rights groups to organize a “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign aimed against the social media company. More than 300 advertisers like Coca-Cola and North Face recently agreed to pause their spending on Facebook because it had failed to curtail the spread of hate speech and misinformation on its platform.

On Tuesday, civil rights leaders met with Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, with 10 demands, including appointing a civil rights executive. But those who attended said the Facebook executives did not agree to many of their requests and instead spouted “spin.”

Facebook’s executives had previously pointed to the civil rights audit as a sign that the company was seriously grappling with what was on its site.

In a statement on Wednesday about the audit, Ms. Sandberg said the report was “the beginning of the journey, not the end.” She added: “What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go. As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company.”

In the report, the auditors credited Facebook for making progress on some issues, including increasing hiring of in-house civil rights experts over the past two years. Mr. Zuckerberg had also personally committed to building products that “advance racial justice,” the report said.

But the report was critical of Facebook’s handling of speech — particularly speech from politicians — and the effects on users. The auditors said Facebook had been too willing to exempt politicians from abiding by its rules, allowing them to spread misinformation, harmful and divisive rhetoric, and even calls to violence.

The auditors said their concerns had increased over the past nine months because of decisions made by Mr. Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg, Facebook’s global head of policy and communications.

Their concerns were exacerbated last fall, when Mr. Zuckerberg delivered a speech at Georgetown University about his commitment to protecting free speech at all costs. Since then, the report noted, Facebook had refused to take down inflammatory posts from President Trump and had allowed untruthful political ads to be circulated.

“Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone,” the auditors wrote. “When it means that powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules that everyone else does, a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices.”

They added, “The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and nondiscrimination, is deeply troubling.”

In a series of recommendations, the auditors said Facebook needed to build a more robust civil rights infrastructure. They added that Facebook needed to be consistent in its policies and its enforcement, including “more concrete action and specific commitments to take steps to address concerns about algorithmic bias or discrimination.”

Facebook has pledged to make some commitments in response to the audit. In the report, the company said it would create a role for a senior vice president of civil rights leadership that will report up through the legal department and ultimately to Ms. Sandberg. Facebook also promised to develop new internal processes that support the civil rights of users, across its product and policy teams.

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Reddit’s Steve Huffman on Banning ‘The_Donald’ Subreddit

On Monday, Reddit — a site that for years was considered one of the internet’s dirtiest sludge pits — barred more than 2,000 communities as part of a broad crackdown on hate speech.

The crackdown’s most notable casualty was Reddit’s largest pro-Trump community, r/The_Donald. The group, which had nearly 800,000 subscribers, served as a virtual gathering place for President Trump’s fans, and a source of countless memes, slogans and conspiracy theories that made their way into the broader online conversation. (In more recent years, it had devolved into a cesspool of racism, violent threats and targeted harassment.)

These actions were a major shift for Reddit, which spent years resisting the idea of moderating users’ posts and refused to remove all but the worst content on its platform. Steve Huffman, Reddit’s co-founder and chief executive since 2015, when he returned to the company after six years away, has faced pressure to reckon with the site’s legacy of bigotry. This year, hundreds of Reddit moderators signed an open letter to Mr. Huffman and Reddit’s board demanding changes to the site’s policies.

On Monday, after the bans were announced, I interviewed Mr. Huffman about the decision to take down The_Donald and many other subreddits. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Can you explain, in the most succinct way possible, why you decided to take down these subreddits?

STEVE HUFFMAN Yes. We updated our content policy to add an explicit rule banning hate on Reddit, which has long been an implicit rule, somewhat by design. But not being explicit about it, I think, has caused all sorts of confusion over the years. And so we updated the rule.

And then any time we make a rule change, we evaluate communities against the rule change. And so, as a result, there were a number of communities we ended up banning.

A few weeks ago, you wrote a letter to your employees about Black Lives Matter and where Reddit stood on issues like hate and racism. How much do you think the political climate and the protests and the kind of reckoning we’re seeing played into this decision?

The current events certainly added more urgency to it. Now, that said, we’ve been working on an update to our content policy for quite some time, and we had a sense of where the gaps were, and the rough patches.

A few years ago, you were asked about banning The_Donald specifically, and you said “there are arguments on both sides, but ultimately, my view is that their anger comes from feeling like they don’t have a voice, so it won’t solve anything if I take away their voice.” What changed?

So The_Donald is complex, and I think reducing that community or any large political group to one thing or one viewpoint is impossible. One aspect of The_Donald is that it’s a very large political community that, at one point in time, represented the views of many Americans. Political speech is sacred in this country, and we applied that to Reddit as well.

At the same time, that community had rule-breaking content — content that was harassing or violence or bullying. And so our strategy has been to try to get that community to come in line with our content policies. We made moderator changes, different technical changes to try to bring The_Donald into line, some more successful than others, but ultimately not to the extent that we needed.

Something I’ve said many times is that the only way to scale moderation online is by working alongside our community members and the moderators, because they have the context to decide whether an individual piece of content is hateful or not, for example. Which means that if we don’t have agreement from our moderators and our communities that these are the rules that we’re all going to abide by, then a community that’s not willing to work with us has no place on Reddit. And I think that became abundantly clear with The_Donald over the years, and even the past few months.

Right now, Facebook is facing an advertiser boycott — companies pulling their ads in protest of the company’s policies and their failures to keep misinformation and hate speech off the platform. Reddit also has advertisers, who presumably have some of the same concerns. Was this a business decision?

No, although, of course, what you say is true — we have advertisers who care about these things. But this was a decision — a series of decisions, really — to make Reddit better.

The mission of Reddit is to bring community and belonging to everybody in the world. And we’ve long had this debate on Reddit and internally, weighing the trade-offs between speech and safety. There’s certain speech — for example, harassment and hate — that prevents other people from speaking. And if we have individuals and communities on Reddit that are preventing other people from using Reddit the way we intend, then that means they’re working directly against our mission.

In a call this week, you said something about how you were struggling to balance your values as an American with your values around human decency. Can you explain more what you meant by that?

I think this is something that a lot of people in the United States are going through right now.

When we started Reddit 15 years ago, we didn’t ban things. And it was easy, as it is for many young people, to make statements like that because: 1) I had more rigid political beliefs; and 2) I lacked perspective and real-world experience.

Over the years, we’ve been increasingly confronted with difficult decisions, and we have to weigh these trade-offs. And so here we are, believing that free speech and free expression are really important, and that’s one of the things that makes Reddit special, but at the same time, seeing that allowing everything is working against our mission.

The way out, for us, has been through our mission: What are we trying to accomplish on Reddit? And what’s the best path to get there?

You used to joke that you were Reddit’s “totally politically neutral C.E.O.” For a long time, it seemed like neutrality was sort of the aspirational goal of being a social media platform. And now it seems like a lot of platform leaders, you included, are admitting that that’s not a good goal, or at least not one that produces good outcomes. Do you think the era of the neutral platform is over?

I’m going to reject that statement just a little bit, in that banning hate and violence and bullying and harassment is less a political statement and more a statement of what are largely common values in this country. And there’s certainly the political debate over how far free speech should go. But just as in the United States, there’s no such thing as unfettered free speech, there are limits. And I will point out that the Supreme Court has also wrestled with this over hundreds of years, because these are really challenging debates.

I’m baiting you a little bit, so don’t ask the obvious follow-up question, but … although I have political views, they don’t surface through Reddit. And nobody, in all of my years on Reddit, has actually asked me my political views.

Well, OK What are your political views?

You’d have to give me a specific case. But I think my previous point stands, which is that working in service of our mission is not a hot take. Banning harassment is not a hot take.

But in today’s political environment, even saying something like “Black Lives Matter” places you on one side of a cultural divide and political divide. So how do you think about the fact that even if you don’t mean for these to be partisan decisions, people will interpret them as such?

You know, I think the answer is in your question. I think making statements, or making changes to our policies in the name of human decency, may be perceived as political statements. But for us, it’s doing the right thing and doing the practical thing.

In the past couple of weeks, the President has threatened to revoke legal protections for online companies, and he’s gone after Snapchat and Twitter and other platforms that have taken action against him. Are you worried about becoming a target of the president and his allies?

Well, I believe the latest thing through the Department of Justice was demanding that these platforms consistently enforce their terms of service. And so we are simply doing what he asked by enforcing our own terms of service.

I’m sure that will be a satisfactory answer to everyone in the Trump administration.

[Laughs] I think we’re good, right?

One thing that was said about social media for a long time, and that some platforms are still saying, is that social media is just a mirror for society. Like, the problems that exist on social media are just a reflection of the problems that exist in society, and the good things are a reflection as well. Do you think that analogy still holds?

Yes, but let me expand on that a little bit.

So when one looks into a mirror, the first thing they do is they see themselves. And the second thing they do is they fix their appearance. They brush their hair a little bit, or whatever. Mirrors aren’t one way, in that sense. It’s an opportunity to see what we really look like and decide, is that what we really want to be?

Nilay Patel, the editor in chief of The Verge, had an interesting tweet. The conversation was all about the political and legal and financial reasons that platforms might want to crack down on objectionable speech. And he said, “sometimes the answer is as simple as people looking at the thing that they’ve made and deciding that they would like to be more proud of it than they are.” Does that resonate with you?

It does. And to be honest, I’ve said those words at Reddit. When I came back my first day of 2015, I told the company “one of my goals is for you to be proud to work here.” Because back then, the company was not in a good place. The people who worked at Reddit simultaneously loved Reddit — you wouldn’t be at Reddit in 2015 unless you loved Reddit — and were not willing to wear their swag in public.

Like, their Reddit sweatshirts and T-shirts?

Precisely. And that made me sad. It’s, I think, a very natural human thing to want to make the world a better place. I know those words are cheap in this town, but some of us believe it.

Your general counsel said on Monday that there’s a place for President Trump on Reddit. But given how the president has been testing the limits and rules of all the platforms that he’s on, and creating all these headaches for their leaders, do you really want Mr. Trump on Reddit?

Look, nobody wants to be in an echo chamber, right? It’s boring and unhelpful to read a one-sided view of any issue. So we welcome political views across the spectrum. I think Trump’s rhetoric and campaign style is deliberately antagonistic, and that makes it easy to run afoul of our policies. But we have many conservatives on Reddit, and we have Trump supporters on Reddit who are perfectly capable of staying within our rules. And we hope that continues to be the case going forward.

Your co-founder Alexis Ohanian recently stepped down from Reddit’s board, saying that he wanted to make space for a Black board member. And when he made that announcement, he said that part of the reason that he did that was so that he’d have an answer when his daughter asked, “What did you do?” I don’t think you have kids, but when you’re making decisions like these, how much are you thinking about how future generations will look back on Reddit?

You know, when I look back on this time, and — hopefully — if I get to tell my kids about it, I can say that I didn’t quit, I was a part of this, and I did everything I could to stand up for my and our values, even though at times it’s very difficult.

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Beijing Threatens Hong Kong’s Companies and Workers

HONG KONG — China and its allies are using threats and pressure to get business to back Beijing’s increasingly hard-line stance toward Hong Kong, leading companies to muzzle or intimidate workers who speak out in protest.

Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s former top leader, on Friday called for a boycott of HSBC, the London bank, because it had not publicly backed Beijing’s push to enact a new national security law covering the territory. “Neither China nor Hong Kong owes HSBC anything,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “HSBC’s businesses in China can be replaced overnight by banks from China and from other countries.”

Days earlier, a union representing financial workers filed complaints with Hong Kong financial regulators alleging that two Chinese banks had pressured their employees to sign a petition supporting the law. “Such behavior by a supervisor to compel employees to take political sides could be considered abusive,” the union wrote in letters to local officials.

Lawyers, bankers, professors and other professionals interviewed by The New York Times described a growing culture of fear in offices across the city. Employees face pressure to support pro-Beijing candidates in local elections and echo the Chinese government’s official line. Those who speak out can be punished or even forced out.

China and the United States are clashing over the future of Hong Kong, and global businesses are caught in the middle. President Trump on Friday said he would begin rolling back the special trade and financial privileges that the United States extends to Hong Kong after Chinese leaders pushed through the plan to enact the national security law, which critics fear will curtail the city’s independent judicial system and civil liberties.

Hong Kong’s success as a global financial hub stems from its status as a bridge between China’s economic miracle and the rest of the world. Now that balance is looking increasingly precarious.

Protests erupted last year after Hong Kong’s unpopular Beijing-backed government tried to give Chinese authorities more say in the city’s affairs. As it has pressured business to take its side, China has used access to its vast market as an incentive to toe the Communist Party line.

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Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“We’ve seen a rapid deterioration in free expression in Hong Kong since the anti-government protests began,” said Jason Ng, a former lawyer for BNP Paribas, the French bank.

Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based airline, drew headlines late last year when it fired employees for voicing views that angered Chinese authorities. Four of the world’s biggest accounting firms condemned the Hong Kong protests and distanced themselves from employees who supported them.

    Understand the Current Hong Kong Protests

    Updated May 27, 2020

    • Where we left off

      In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong protesters began fighting a rule that would allow extraditions to China. These protests eventually broadened to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. The protests wound down when pro-democracy candidates notched a stunning victory in Hong Kong elections in November, in what was seen as a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.

      Late in 2019, the protests then quieted.

    • How it’s different this time

      Those peaceful mass rallies that occurred in June of 2019 were pointed against the territory leadership of Hong Kong. Later, they devolved into often-violent clashes between some protesters and police officers and lasted through November 2019. The current protests are aimed at mainland China.

    • What’s happening now

      This latest round of demonstrations in Hong Kong has been fueled largely by China’s ruling Communist Party move this month to impose new national security legislation for Hong Kong.

      To China, the rules are necessary to protect the country’s national sovereignty. To critics, they further erode the relative autonomy granted to the territory after Britain handed it back to China in 1997.