China has neutralized the social media threat

China’s most popular social media platforms.
China’s most popular social media platforms.
Image: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic
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For the past four years, China’s government and its far-reaching bureaucracy have embarked on a campaign to take back China’s weibo microblog scene from the masses, who have been using social media services to expose corrupt officials, circulate news, and air their opinions.

And it’s working. According to a new study by media researchers based in China and the US, the government’s 176,000 microblogs are trying to control much of the discussion online, by offering official interpretations of public events, while contrary views are ruthlessly deleted by Great Firewall censors.

In the latest government maneuver, China released new restrictive regulations today seemingly aimed at Tencent’s popular WeChat chat service, which has also become a de facto town square where current events are discussed. According to the People’s Daily, only the public accounts of media agencies can post or re-post political news on instant messaging apps like WeChat. New users will also have to provide their real names and sign a contract promising they will “obey the law and respect the socialist system.”

In Guangzhou, WeChat users are forbidden from sharing any political news from independent or overseas news sources; only news from accredited media outlets are allowed. Weibo was the target of a similar crackdown last year.

It’s a dispiriting development for those who once had high hopes for social media’s ability to empower the Chinese public. (Former US president Bill Clinton once said that trying to control the internet in China was like “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”) And yet, today Chinese officials are not only controlling the internet through tighter restrictions and harsher penalties for Chinese media and everyday bloggers but starting to co-opt it themselves.

Since 2011, when China’s deputy director of the central propaganda told local officials to “occupy weibo,” (link in Chinese) the number of microblog accounts belonging to municipal governments, individual officials, and government departments has grown from 522 in 2010 to 176,800 as of 2013. Accounts like that of the deputy director of education in Zhejiang (registration required) have over 2 million followers, while Shanghai’s municipal government has almost 5 million followers.

Jesper Schlaeger of Sichuan University and Min Jiang of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte analyzed the Weibo accounts from municipal governments of Chengdu, Nanjing and Shanghai, and found that their main functions were to offer official interpretations of public events, gauge public opinion, and more importantly, to appeal to netizens via quick responses to questions and complaints, posting useful tips on traffic and weather, and stories that make the government appear more human. “Official microblogging is an extension of sophisticated e-government efforts for managing social tensions and conflicts,” the researchers concluded.

The Weibo acccount of the Shanghai municipal government posts photos of a local art exhibit.
The Weibo acccount of the Shanghai municipal government posts photos of a local art exhibit.
Image: Weibo

Most worrying is the possibility that state social media activity will eventually lead to more online surveillance. So far, municipal governments can’t legally demand access to user data from Sina and Tencent, as the national government often does. But these internet firms have to abide by Chinese regulations, which could easily be changed so that authorities can demand information or special privileges, the authors noted.

“Historically the Chinese government has not refrained itself from reaching into the commercial quarters of the Chinese internet and regulating commercial entities as it sees fit…strong resistance from commercial internet service providers to protect the security of user data is unlikely to succeed,” the researchers said. “In the end, official microblogs reinforce, rather than change, the power relations in Chinese local governance, i.e. politics as usual.”