China boosts censorship of social media

China’s popular, social-media platform Sina Weibo reintroduced key elements of its service a week ago after they were suspended in January by the country’s Internet regulator for failing to halt the spread of “harmful content.”

In January, the Beijing office of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) declared that, “obscenity, low taste, and ethnic discrimination continued to spread on Sina Weibo,” along with content containing “wrong public opinion orientation.”

“Sina Weibo has violated the country’s laws and regulations, led online public opinion in the wrong direction and left a very bad influence,” the CAC stated.

According to WhatsOnWeibo, the company responded with an announcement on its website that it accepted the criticism and promised to fulfil “higher standards and responsibility.”

It pledged to “increase the cooperation with the formal media”—that is, state-owned enterprises—and better manage its content through developing, “more technology and manpower [to] improve our management of illegal and harmful information, maintain the order within the online information and preserve a good [online] environment.”

According to a bill passed in 2000 by China’s State Council, what can be deemed “illegal” is very broadly and vaguely defined. This provides the basis for severe restrictions on Internet companies operating in China.

Article 15 of the bill entitled “Measures for the Administration of Internet Information Services,” prohibits Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from publishing information that constitutes mere rumours, or disrupts social order and stability, or undermines national unity and interests.

Weibo, owned by the technology company Sina Corp, is a microblog social network similar in function to Twitter, enabling users to publicly share short messages, images and video content. In 2017 it experienced explosive growth, reaching 376 million Monthly Active Users (MAUs) in September, outpacing Twitter, which had 330 million MAUs.

Of critical concern to the Chinese government is social media’s potential to serve as a conduit for mass political disaffection and radicalisation outside the control of the state apparatus and its extensive Internet police.

In response to the CAC’s actions, Weibo overhauled sections on its main page, including “trending hashtags,” “most searched topics” and “searches from friends.” A new section was also introduced, entitled “new era,” which directs users to topics and discussions lauding the achievements of the Chinese state, as well as to sanitised versions of domestic news produced by the state-owned media.

Previously, what Weibo presented as “trending” and “most searched” was managed somewhat organically by “trustworthy users”—accounts that Weibo ranked as having positive online behaviour. With the recent changes, according to the China Global Television Network, Weibo staff can now directly monitor and remove online content.

This is the latest episode in the Beijing regime’s long-running campaign to monitor and control online activity.

On December 29, sections of the popular news app Jinri Toutiao were similarly “updated,” due to CAC accusations of “spreading pornographic and vulgar information” and “causing a negative impact on public opinion online.”

Last August, Weibo’s parent organisation, Sina, along with two other tech firms, Tencent and Baidu, were each fined the maximum penalty of 500,000 yuan ($US76,000) for allowing the spread of “harmful content” on their social media platforms.

It is telling that governments in the US and Europe, as well as corporate giants such as Google, Facebook and other social media, are using justifications for censoring the Internet that are indistinguishable from those of the Chinese Communist Party.

In late January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a statement lamenting “harmful content” on his platform, as well as the proliferation of supposed “fake news.”

“The world feels anxious and divided—and that played out on Facebook,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’ve seen abuse on our platform, including interference from nation states, the spread of news that is false, sensational and polarizing, and debate about the utility of social media.” The billionaire pledged to “amplify the good and prevent harm. That is my personal challenge for 2018.”

In line with the Chinese government’s attempts to redirect its citizens to the “formal media,” Zuckerberg also broadcast his company’s intentions to promote “broadly trusted and high-quality sources,” citing the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, which are mouthpieces for US military, corporate and political elites, “in order to counter misinformation and polarization.”

Amid the growing dangers of war and signs of social unrest, fundamental democratic rights are increasingly under attack, both in established police-states such as China, and so-called democracies such as the United States. As they prepare for war abroad and class war at home, the ruling classes around the world fear that the Internet increasingly will become a vehicle, not only for accurate information and news, but for organising protests and opposition.

The Chinese regime is notorious for its online censorship system, popularly known as the “Great Firewall,” which aims to limit online discussion to officially approved topics, along the lines of state propaganda. However, the burgeoning use of the Internet in China is a challenge even for its vast policing apparatus.

According to the China Internet Network Information Center, 40.74 million Chinese citizens became new Internet users last year alone, bringing the total to 772 million users, or approximately half the population. Of these users, 97.5 percent used mobile phones to access the Internet.

To better manage online activity, the CAC introduced new regulations last October requiring ISPs to request and verify the real names of their users, as well as to “investigate thoroughly” anyone suspected of using fake names, and to turn over all relevant data to authorities.

In a candid interview with Bloomberg last year, Baidu president Zhang Yaqin provided an indication of the extent to which social media companies are involved in turning over claims of “fake news” to government authorities.

Zhang reported that, utilising the latest advances in technology and online vetters, every year Baidu sees, “somewhere around 3 billion claims, requests that we need to verify, that might turn out to be fake news.”

“We have an obligation to make sure the user gets good content, but it continues to be a challenge for us, for other companies in China, and companies in the US,” Zhang said.