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Between censorship and commerce: analyzing social media in China

Digital platforms have become an indispensable source of information and communication in China. Fu King-wa, Associate Professor at the Journalism and Media Study Center of University of Hong Kong, has developed tools to analyze the development of Chinese social media, which - in contrast to Western equivalents - are heavily controlled by the state. On May 30, 2018, Fu gave some insights into his research at a MERICS Lunch Talk.

“Censorship is an issue that Chinese users of social media have to face every day,” he said. Fu, who is also a Visiting Associate Professor at the MIT Media Lab and a Senior Research Fellow at the Fulbright Research Grants Council in Hong Kong, elaborated on how people in China have to deal with frequent censorship and government interference into social media activities. And information control in China goes beyond just censorship, as Fu pointed out.

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In his project “Wechatscope” Fu analyses censorship on WeChat, China’s biggest messenger platform. The project evolved from “Weiboscope,” which Fu had started eight years ago to take a deeper look into the activities on this Twitter-like platform. Wechat, which is much more popular among Chinese social media users today than Weibo, also provides a public platform for discussion. But it goes a step further by enabling more private exchanges in closed groups and one-on-one conversations. The Chinese government makes substantial efforts to control debates on Wechat. According to Fu’s research, it has become the social media platform that is “most penetrated” by supervising mechanisms.

Fu described three different stages of control over news and social media. “Control 1.0,” as he called the first stage, concerns censorship of content considered politically sensitive, like, for instance, mentioning the Dalai Lama or Xinjiang. 

“Control 2.0” is about controlling political narratives by means of propaganda and strict regulation of media, entertainment industry, business, commerce and the civil society. The Chinese government also tries to form and “conquer public opinion” with what Fu called “topic strategy” and “rumor management.” It is difficult for social media users to defend themselves against this kind of influencing.

The last stage, “Control 3.0,” refers to the control mechanism that is presently being implemented at a fast pace: the Social Credit System, which will rate every individual by evaluating not only financial but also social behavior. While the first two stages of digital control mainly touched upon people’s online behavior, this third stage would also impact their “offline life,” Fu said. He expects social crediting to not only change China but to eventually unfold influence globally. The self-censorship of articles about Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet on the portal of Cambridge University Press in China and Daimler’s apology for ads citing the Dalai Lama might be interpreted as first signs of a gradual adaptation to Chinese expectations, Fu said.

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The “WeChatscope” project combines meticulous linguistic analytics and profound IT skills. The team collects, saves and analyzes censored posts from public WeChat accounts. For this purpose, Fu explained, he created a program that detects new posts and saves them. In total, “WeChatscope” follows 1500 accounts and detects 3000 posts every day. According to the research, around one percent of daily posts is censored; personal accounts of individuals are more likely to be censored than accounts run by institutions.

In China, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find digital platforms that are not infiltrated by the state, said Fu during the discussion with Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Director of the Research Area on Public Policy and Society at MERICS. But he also noted that dissenting voices and people who speak their mind despite censorship and control had not disappeared: “The ‘social’ in ‘social media’ is still there.”