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China’s social media giants want their users to help out with the crushing burden of censorship

Crowd-sourcing censorship.
Crowd-sourcing censorship.
Image: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic
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China’s social media giants are ramping up efforts to get their users to turn in people circulating taboo content, as the Communist Party further tightens its grip on the country’s internet.

On Monday (Jan. 1), China’s tech giant Tencent said it was hiring (link in Chinese) 200 content reviewers to form what the company is calling a “penguin patrol unit,” after the company’s penguin mascot. The brigade, made of 10 journalists, 70 writers who use Tencent’s content platforms, and 120 regular internet users, will flag “low-quality” content.

Reviewers will be required to make at least 300 reports each month about “harmful information,” including porn, sensational headlines, plagiarism, fake news, or old news. Those who complete the mission will get 30 virtual coins which can be used to purchase items on Tencent’s QQ chat app. Those who fail to meet the reporting quota three times will be booted from the unit.

Tencent’s announcement comes as China expands efforts to “clean up” its cyberspace. The past year saw the country crack down on software that allows users to access barred foreign sites, and become more adept at deleting unwanted posts. Even one-on-one chats saw more censorship in relation to taboo topics, such as deceased dissident Liu Xiaobo or the eviction of Beijing’s “low-end” population.

In August, China’s top internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), launched an investigation into several platforms, including Tencent’s flagship social media platform WeChat, China’s Twitter-esque social media Weibo, and search engine Baidu. The CAC accused these platforms of hosting messages containing pornography, threatening violence, or spreading other illegal content, and later fined them (paywall). In an end-of-the-year high-level review by China’s top legislative body, cybersecurity officials said they had taken down over 13,000 illegal websites since 2015, without specifying details of the sites.

WeChat, the all-in-one app, has been an outstanding example of how China’s tech giants are cooperating with Beijing’s efforts to censor what it deems unsavory. In June, CAC’s Guangdong office shut down over two dozen WeChat accounts that had been producing entertainment content, including music and commentary, citing concerns over vulgarity and celebrity privacy. Tencent later responded (link in Chinese) that it would cooperate with the authorities to curb illegal content. Earlier, too, the tech giant shut down some 20 million accounts over concerns they were being used for prostitution.

Other Chinese media platforms are also enlisting help to cope with censorship demands—especially after facing more direct pressure.

Weibo, which has 313 million users, put out a similar notice last September, according to Beijing-based metropolitan newspaper Morning Post. Weibo said it ended up recruiting 776 people (link in Chinese), who collectively reported around 1.3 million instances of pornographic information in November, according to its official account. The group paid the supervisors 200 yuan ($31) per month, with the top performer winning an iPhone 8 Plus.

Eagle-eyed netizens may be able to parlay their part-time experience flagging content into a full-time job.

Jinri Toutiao, an artificial intelligence-backed news app that says it has some 700 million users, already relied on “auditors” to monitor its feeds. Then, last Friday (Dec. 29), the CAC’s Beijing office accused (link in Chinese) Toutiao of “spreading pornographic and vulgar information” and “causing a negative impact on public opinion online.” The office ordered six sections of the apps to shut down for 24 hours.

On Wednesday (Jan. 3), the app said it was hiring 2,000 content reviewers for monthly pay of 4,000 yuan to 6,000 yuan ($617 to $926), with first preference give to Communist Party members or candidates with “good political sensitivity,” according to one job posting (link in Chinese).