After witnessing a SARS-like virus spreading in his city, Dr. Li Wenliang, a physician in Wuhan city, central China tried to warn friends and colleagues of a looming health threat on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform. Along with a photo of a report showing a patient tested positive for “SARS coronavirus,” he urged fellow clinicians to “tell family members to take precautions.” Four days later, he was detained by local authorities for “spreading false information online” while the mysterious virus continued to infect people unaware of the outbreak. The authorities demanded that he “repent,” “listen to the police, and stop illegal behaviour.”
Li’s warning turned out to be a presage of the severity of the outbreak. Started in China, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected over three million and caused nearly 300,000 deaths worldwide in less than four months. Within days of his release, Li himself was diagnosed with the disease and tragically lost his life to it on February 7, 2020. Information and discussions around Li’s death and COVID-19 in general were both strictly monitored and controlled on social media according to leakeddirectives.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 is accompanied by a flood of misinformation and disinformation, some of which have life-threatening consequences. In the rush to tackle the pandemic and an “infodemic”, as the World Health Organization calls it, people are looking at content moderation as a solution. Social media platforms vow to implement strict content control to combat misleading information. Some press for more aggressive regulations on online content, arguing that policy makers should follow China’s censorship model and adopt government-led “monitoring and speech control” to create “a mature and flourishing internet.”
Yet, the mistreatment of whistleblowers such as Dr. Li in China cautions against resorting to heightened controls. China’s model of information control is an antithesis of a proper content moderation model. Characterized by selective censorship without transparency and accountability, China’s content control has turned Chinese Internet into a hotbed for distorted information and ultranationalistic narratives.
This selective censorship is a mixed result of the government’s expansive yet vaguely defined Internet regulations and the profit-motivated companies’ dilemma between retaining users with attractive content and purging their platforms of anything that might cross invisible Party lines. Companies’ content moderation practices under China’s system of information control are in place primarily to protect the political interests of the Party, while driving up their own revenue. Consequently, alternative narratives and critical analyses that may potentially challenge government authorities are the primary targets of oppression on social media platforms, leaving a vacuum for a highly singular set of conservative and often extreme ideologies to flourish.
Recently the South China Morning Post translated a widely circulated article on Weibo, which argues “Mainland Chinese who oppose Hong Kong’s protests aren’t brainwashed by censorship, despite what the West might think.” According to the author, China’s Great Firewall, a system that blocks Chinese Internet users from accessing information deemed “harmful” by the authorities, has not contributed to Chinese Internet users’ lack of critical thinking abilities; rather, users have become “hypersensitive” and “hyperconscious” when it comes to government-approved news and information.
While I agree that not all mainland Chinese who oppose the Hong Kong protests are brainwashed, the arguments in the article are nothing but sophism.
Despite the relative lack of awareness of privacy protection in China, there is an increasing demand for the protection of personal information among Internet users and by the Chinese government. In this post I outline key regulations, measures and drafting documents (see table below).
Within one week, three countries have released or planed to release their version of social media laws that hold private companies liable for content on their platforms. On April 1, 2019, Singapore had the first reading of its anti-fake news law at its parliament. The proposed law would allow the Singaporean government to remove content it deems “false statement” and punish companies and individuals who violate its rules. Two days later, Australia passed a bill that threatens huge fines for social media companies and imprisonment for their executives if they fail to rapidly remove “abhorrent violent material” from their platforms. On April 4, The Guardian reported that the United Kingdom, too, is working on legislation that would hold social media executives liable for harmful content distributed on their platforms.
These laws, however, are often rushed into effect without sufficient reviews or solicitations of feedback from civil society groups and independent researchers. These quick fixes, though to some extent necessary, set a dangerous precedent of over-censorship, self-censorship, and arbitrary information controls in even democratic countries.
After months of talks and wait, Valve Corporation, the American video game developer who runs the world’s largest gaming service Steam, officially got a Chinese vertical. In partnership with Perfect World (完美世界), a Chinese game developer and publisher, Valve signed an agreement with Shanghai government to launch Steam China on November 28, 2018.
To Valve, the partnership is a sensible business move — at least for now. Before it officially entered China, China-China-based users had already accounted for Steam’s second largest user group around the world, coming only after the United States where Valve is headquartered in. Simplified Chinese is the set language for more than 22 percent of Steam’s user base. Meanwhile, Steam faced intermittent blocking before obtaining its legal status in China. Last August, for example, Steam store was reportedly inaccessible in various locations. Steam China will likely lift the block on some current features such as the Steam Community where users can particular in chat and other in-game activities.
To Chinese users, however, the partnership is a mixed news at best. Despite seemingly easier and more open access to these features, many Chinese users remain sceptical of Value and Perfect World’s partnership to the extent that some urged Steam China to “get out of China.” Pervasive censorship requirements, rigid content review processes, and the country’s real-name registration system will predictably pose obstacles to rather than improving Chinese users’ gaming experience.