China’s internet watchdog has announced new rules designed to crack down on “self-media” accounts, the social media accounts of independent citizen journalists and content creators that have flourished on platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. The announcement by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) comes a week after it separately released new rules tightening oversight of verified and organizational social media accounts, suggesting that authorities are undertaking a broad effort to “clean up” speech on social media platforms.
“Self-media” accounts have flourished on Chinese social media platforms in recent years, creating a rare space where some citizen journalists have been able to circumvent editorial censors to report critically from China. The tightened regulations come after authorities arrested several citizen journalists last year for reporting on China’s coronavirus response, including Zhang Zhan, who was jailed for four years for her reporting, which was partially broadcast on WeChat.
At the South China Morning Post, Josh Ye and Tracy Qu reported on the new measures targeting independent content creators:
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is exploring measures to control the distribution of information across all internet platforms to end “disruption to the order of internet broadcasts”, the agency said on Sunday. The campaign will primarily focus on cleaning up self-media accounts, but it also targets social media trending charts, push notifications and short video platforms, according to the report.
[…] The announcement makes it clear that the CAC aims to curb independent reporting and reposting of information considered illegal while promoting government-sanctioned stories.
[…] China’s clean-up campaigns often target different types of content, especially those considered morally objectionable such as pornography and gambling. However, CUHK’s Lee said this new campaign is specifically focused on political content.
“[Xi Jinping] cares a lot about the internet and the content regulation compared with previous administrations,” Lee said. “He also imposed more control over the internet and online information.” [Source]
The emergence of self-media has allowed citizen journalists to produce relatively unregulated news content, and its flourishing has made WeChat the most popular news source in China. But self-media accounts have also become a hotbed of misinformation and fake news–a legitimate problem that authorities have exploited to also crack down on critical journalism. State media has criticized the “chaos” of the self-media environment and the perverse incentives to attract clicks, though media scholars have written about how state propagandists also exploit clickbait to compete for visibility in an increasingly saturated information market.
In addition to fake news, Chinese internet regulators have also sought to regulate the tone of news coverage. Older rules for verified and organizational accounts mandated that publishers spread “positive energy.” CDT translated a post by one content creator who poked fun at the new regulations, sarcastically reflecting on the “negativity” of their own past news coverage:
Don’t ignore this notice. Make sure to read it and get the key points: First, you can’t do this anymore. What do you know, anyway? You’re just messing around. Second, this is not limited to the four big areas of politics, economy, military affairs, and diplomacy; it covers all major breaking news, which means you can’t blindly chase hot topics anymore. You may end up falling off a cliff, and no one is going to save you then.
I support this notice. Every time I read those public accounts, those bloggers, man, there’s nothing they won’t write about to get your attention, and it’s all negative. Just reading them makes me have a mental breakdown. And I’m always sad. I might actually have depression now.
Why don’t you produce more positive, uplifting, heartwarming stories?
Of course, I need to do some self-reflection, too. For a long time, I’ve been writing about negative stuff as well.
Any society has its fair share of bad stuff. That’s unavoidable! There’s all sorts of weird things in the world. You can’t be fixated on these negative things and ignore the mainstream, which is warm and sunny.
For TechCrunch, Rita Liao reported that while independent content creators predicted the new regulations would likely stifle self-media reporting on sensitive topics, content creators were also likely find new ways to adapt:
The requirement of news accreditation will likely be a death knell for independent social media publishers that have taken on journalistic roles, particularly those covering politics. “It’s not something you can obtain easily unless you’re an official news outlet or an organization with unmatched resources and background,” a WeChat account publisher told TechCrunch.
Avoiding sensitive topics, such as U.S.-China relations, is always the norm, but the red line on each platform is slightly different, a self-publisher who focuses on finance said. “Sometimes you will have to try it yourself,” the person said.
China’s control on news reaches into every corner of the internet, and regulations are always playing catchup with the pace at which new media, such as microblogs and live streaming, flourishes. [Source]
One space that Chinese internet users have found for the discussion of sensitive issues is on the group audio chat app Clubhouse, which has been exploding in popularity in both the U.S. and China this week. Protocol’s Shen Lu and Zeyi Yang reported that users had recently used the app as a new platform to discuss sensitive political issues:
Who’s on Clubhouse? China’s elites. More specifically: Tech workers, social media opinion leaders, dissidents, activists and journalists both in China and outside of China.
Clubhouse is on the Weibo trending chart. One day after Elon Musk appeared on Clubhouse, the hashtag “Clubhouse Invite Code” appeared as a trending topic on the Chinese social media platform.
What are users talking about? One big topic: Politics. As censorship becomes increasingly pervasive on Chinese social media, Mandarin speakers are using Clubhouse as a new public square for political discourse. Late Tuesday night, Asia time, users in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan stayed up late to debate Chinese identity and democracy. Things got heated when it came to Hong Kong protests, China’s handling of the pandemic and censorship. [Source]
But the flocking of new users to the uncensored platform has some questioning how long it will last in China:
China tech reporters can prepare obituaries for Clubhouse in China in advance if there’s nothing interesting to cover today.
— 王博源 Wang Boyuan (@thisboyuan) February 2, 2021