Several of China’s largest social media companies including Weibo, Douyin, Toutiao, Zhihu, Kuaishou, and Xiaohongshu have announced that they will display users’ IP addresses. The measure, which will affect the majority of Chinese internet users, is ostensibly an effort to tamp down on online “rumor-mongering.” Earlier this month, many of the same companies announced campaigns to scrub their platforms of “historical nihilism,” the Party’s term for heterodox histories that challenge its interpretations of the past (and thus the present.) For Reuters, Eduardo Baptista reported on Weibo’s decision to publicly display IP addresses, making it the first site to do so:
Weibo, which has over 570 million monthly active users, said users’ IP addresses would be displayed under new settings which came into effect on Thursday and cannot be turned off by users.
[…] The settings are designed to “reduce bad behavior such as impersonating parties involved in hot topic issues, malicious disinformation and traffic scraping, and to ensure the authenticity and transparency of the content disseminated,” it said in a notice.
[…] Weibo, which has been on the receiving end of several fines from China’s cyberspace regulator over the past year, frequently publishes notices about its efforts to combat bad behavior online, including posting the names of accounts punished. [Source]
The measure has prompted a student at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University to file suit against Weibo for displaying her IP address and location without her permission. Using the pseudonym “Little Moon,” the student filed a civil suit in a Beijing court tasked with adjudicating internet-related disputes. After a short back-and-forth, the court accepted her case on April 21, 2022. An essay detailing her appeal has been censored from WeChat. CDT has no further updates on the case at the present time.
Weibo users have ridiculed the practice of displaying IP addresses and expressed fears about its dangers, including the potential for digital witch-hunts, geographic discrimination, and increased self-censorship:
廖外划线丹：I suggest they also display your Party membership status, your number of children, your class status, your employer (state-owned enterprise, private company, or foreign company), your work title, your annual salary, your savings account balance, your home’s square-footage, your penis size…
某个漪: Pinpointing our location without our permission, so everyone who uses Weibo will be under constant surveillance. Is that the goal?
]抠脚少女：The water you’re using to boil us frogs is getting hotter, and fast.
塔珥塔羅斯：Blink again and they’ll announce they’re showing our home addresses.
陈昊然：The noose around our necks is getting tighter. [Chinese]
The new measure has also exposed the hypocrisy of certain nationalistic social media accounts, in addition to the absurdities of China’s existing internet controls, which sometimes require foreigners to register their accounts using a Chinese phone number:
Now that Weibo shows every user’s IP address on their pages, netizens found out that the IP address of Di Ba (帝吧), an ultra nationalistic account who repeatedly claimed that Taiwan’s cyber force has infiltrated Weibo and China’s social media, is…Taiwan. pic.twitter.com/aiCszrQa2f
— Wenhao (@ThisIsWenhao) April 30, 2022
Jokes aside, it’s likely that Di Ba is using VPN. Its IP address has changed in the past few hours from Taiwan to Zhejiang to Japan to Hong Kong. pic.twitter.com/k9ZsDowxnl
— Wenhao (@ThisIsWenhao) April 30, 2022
As of today, many Chinese social media platforms (incl Weibo, Zhihu, XHS, and others) display users' geolocation, a function that can't be turned off. Funny to see that Bill Gates is located in Henan, Leo Messi is located in Shanghai, while Hu Xijin is located nowhere at all. pic.twitter.com/oidMGx5FCi
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) April 30, 2022
After Weibo began displaying IP addresses, China’s other social media giants quickly followed suit. At South China Morning Post, Coco Feng reported on the move, which will impact the majority of China’s internet-using population:
The platforms said the measure, which is not mandated by law, is meant to “prevent netizens from pretending to be locals and spreading rumors”. Other platforms implementing the change include TikTok owner ByteDance’s news aggregator Jinri Toutiao, Douyin short video rival Kuaishou, and lifestyle community Xiaohongshu, which all said locations will be visible on user profiles. Zhihu, China’s popular question-and-answer site, said user locations will be displayed alongside each post.
[…] While China’s central government has been reining in online content over the past year with increasing regulatory oversight, there is no official regulation requiring platforms to display user location. In March, the internet watchdog Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said this year’s campaign to clean up online chaos included cracking down on rumors.
[…] The move marks the biggest effort since 2017 to introduce more transparency to user identities online. Five years ago, a slew of social platforms started requiring users to associate their accounts with a phone number, which in China must be registered with a national ID. [Source]
The crackdown on “rumor-mongering” has not been confined to cyberspace. Shanghai authorities have pursued people who have spread “rumors” about the city’s outbreak, even when they turn out to be true, as was the case for two men investigated in March for “fabricating” information about the city’s imminent lockdown in an alleged attention-seeking ploy. The city locked down just days later, a lockdown which is now in its fifth week. State-media outlet Global Times reported that Shanghai will “severely [crack] down on rumors and has already shuttered 30 WeChat groups and punished 23 individuals for their posts.
Is this like the same way the doctors in Wuhan were punished in 2020?
— H¡¡¡Power (@JBoc1o) March 23, 2022
In a now-censored Zhihu post, one user hypothesized how Lu Xun might have been treated by both police and netizens had the internet existed while he was writing in the 1920s. Referencing historical events such as Dr. Li Wenliang’s admonishment notice, the Chinese government’s characterization of Hong Kong protesters as “radicals” and “thugs,” and the massacre of students and Beijing residents on June 4, 1989, the Zhihu poster imagined a world in which Lu Xun was treated as a rumor-monger and arrested:
Police: Zhou Shuren, by tracing your IP address, we’ve established that the online user known as “Lu Xun” is you.
Zhou Shuren: It is I.
Police: What were you hoping to achieve by posting “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen” online?
Zhou Shuren: My intention is evident in the title.
Police：You say Liu Hezhen was gunned down. Did you see that with your own eyes?
Zhou Shuren: I did not.
Police: You’re a rumor-monger!
Zhou Shuren：I heard of it from others.
Police：Don’t believe rumors, and don’t spread rumors. You will be held legally responsible!
Zhou Shuren: I…
Police: Liu Hezhen and others colluded with foreign forces in a plot to throw China into chaos. We say they are “rioters.” Do you have a problem with that?
Zhou Shuren: I do not.
Police：What did you mean by: “Unless we burst out, we shall perish in this silence!” What were you trying to provoke? What are you trying to overthrow?
Zhou Shuren: I wasn’t trying to do anything.
Police: What did you mean by: “One is that the authorities could act so barbarously, another that the rumor-mongers could sink so low, yet another that Chinese girls could face death so bravely.” Were you trying to say we are savage and evil, while glorifying rioters?
Zhou Shuren: I …
Police: We are now going to arrest you, in accordance with the Criminal Code of the Republic of China, on charges of subverting state power, picking quarrels and provoking trouble, slander, and libel. Do you understand?
Zhou Shuren: I understand.
Police: If you understand, then write here that you “clearly understand” and then sign your name to it.
Zhou Shuren: Okay.
Beiyang News: A man from Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province colluded with foreign forces, spread rumors, slandered and libeled law enforcement officials, and attempted to subvert state power. In accordance with the law, Zhejiang police arrested the suspect, identified only by his surname “Zhou.” We once again urge all citizens of the Republic not to believe or spread rumors.
Netizen A: Nice one! If you think China is bad, you should pitch in and help instead of adding to the chaos!
Netizen B: I know this Zhou Shuren. When he was young he studied abroad in Japan. His brother married a Japanese woman. He’s definitely on Japan’s payroll!
Netizen C: He comes from a landlord background. Strike down the landlords!
Netizen D: He’s a public intellectual, and even teaches at Peking University. This calls for a thorough investigation into PKU. We can’t have him corrupting students!
Netizen E: He abandoned his wife and slept with one of his students. He’s a bad guy!
Netizen F: Who knows what sort of improper relationship he had with Liu Hezhen! [Chinese]