Zhihu Scraps User Anonymity; Cyberspace Administration Targets Cyberbullying and Independent Content Creators

On July 7, the Chinese Quora-like Q&A site Zhihu announced that users will no longer be able to post questions and answers anonymously. For existing content posted anonymously, users will be able to choose whether to keep it anonymous or convert it to include their real names. The change will affect both the browser-based and app versions of Zhihu, and is expected to go into full effect on July 14. Many Zhihu users expressed concern that the change would hinder public dialogue on the website, which is known for its freewheeling topical discussions and often-juicy anonymously posted content from government and industry insiders. 

As CDT analyst Eric Liu noted in a Twitter thread on the same day, China’s real-name registration system makes true online anonymity almost impossible. The administrators of websites such as Zhihu and their in-house and government censors are well aware of the identities of their users. But Zhihu’s front-end anonymity afforded users a certain measure of privacy with respect to the general public, a way to comment on events in their professional or academic fields without being easily identified by their colleagues or employers, for example. Liu averred that scrapping Zhihu’s front-end anonymity function will mark the end of Zhihu as a forum for exposing injustice or exploring the inner workings of smaller-scale societal power structures such as schools, housing complexes, neighborhood committees, and the like.

The Zhihu policy change was announced on the same day that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) issued a call for comments on new draft regulations requiring online service providers to tighten control of content promoting cyber violence or bullying, including content deemed to be slanderous, insulting, or discriminatory; based on rumor or malicious speculation; or constituting a threat to someone’s reputation, privacy, or physical or mental health. The CAC draft includes some prohibitions on online anonymity, and urges online service providers to shut down accounts, blogs, websites, and live streams that violate the new regulations. 

This was followed a few days later by another CAC directive strengthening controls over 自媒体 (zìméitǐ), a term variously translated as “self-published media,” “self-media,” or “personal media.” The term refers to independent content creators—as opposed to state-approved or government media outlets—and encompasses personal websites, blogs, microblogs, live streams, video-sharing accounts, e-commerce operations, and more. A full English translation of the 13-point directive has been published by China Law Translate (CLT). In a Twitter thread on Monday, CLT’s Jeremy Daum characterized it as “a critical new document that will matter for more than a single 1440-minute-per-day news cycle. It addresses platform duties in social media content control.”

The vaguely-written regulations appeared to put the onus on online platforms to maintain order and exert control over influencers and independent content creators by taking “prompt action to monitor and suspend user accounts that disseminate false information or weigh in on hot-button topics that could have a harmful impact.” The regulations, however, did not specify exactly what type of content would be considered illegal or harmful. Websites and platforms are also expected to conduct strict verification of the academic credentials and professional bona-fides of content creators “engaged in producing information and content in the fields such as finance, education, healthcare, and judiciary.”

Caixin Global’s Kelly Wang reported on the details of the new regulations and how they align with the CAC crackdown earlier this year on independent content creators and online influencers:

The new rules also regulate the monetization channels of self-media accounts, stating that those carrying out malicious marketing actions such as creating vulgar online personas should not be granted profit-making privileges.

In addition, the document stated that technology-generated images and videos need to be clearly labeled, and that self-media accounts should not distort facts or publish information that has been edited or fabricated in a way that would affect its authenticity. Websites and platforms are encouraged to restrict the traffic of information deemed “controversial,” although it did not spell out what would constitute a disputed content. Meanwhile, it added that they should encourage and guide accounts to produce “high-quality information content.”

Earlier this year, the CAC launched a targeted campaign to crackdown on problematic self-media accounts. Between March and May, major social media platforms including Weibo, Tencent and Douyin punished more than 927,600 accounts, of which over 66,000 have been permanently shut down, for violations including spreading false information, imitating official government accounts, and conducting illegal monetization practices, according to data released by the CAC. [Source]

Soon after the Zhihu announcement, an anonymous user posed the following question to the website: What do you think of Zhihu disabling anonymous posting? CDT editors have collected and translated a number of answers, most of which were, appropriately, posted by anonymous Zhihu users ahead of the ban’s implementation:

Anonymous User: I wholeheartedly concur. It’d be even better to add I.D. numbers and phone numbers after people’s answers and comments. That would make it even more authentic.

Anonymous User: I suggest Zhihu close the whole comments section, and just keep the “like” button.

Anonymous User: I’m going to be presumptuous and take advantage of this opportunity to post anonymously one last time, before life takes a turn for the “better.”

Anonymous User: My first reaction was that now people who work within the Party system won’t be able to speak out freely on Zhihu anymore.

Anonymous User: Help! Does this mean there won’t be any more eating melons [i.e. spilling the tea]? A lot of major melons were revealed by anonymous users! 

Anonymous User: Do you have any idea how much first-person perspective on officialdom has been contributed by anonymous users?

Anonymous User: This will make it easier to track people down across provincial lines.

Anonymous User: Love the Motherland, love the People, love the Communist Party of China.

Anonymous User: We will meet again in a place where there is no darkness.

Anonymous User: Sometimes the times change silently. Here’s an anonymous comment, for posterity.

Anonymous User: The last anonymous answer.

Anonymous User: Freedom is like air: you don’t really notice it until you’re suffocating.

Anonymous User: This will be a milestone in the complete demise of Zhihu.

Anonymous User: [Posted an image of the July 7 new draft regulations from the Cyberspace Administration of China]. [Chinese]


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