China’s powerful Cyberspace Administration said on Friday it has ordered investigations into several hugely popular social media platforms for hosting content that “harmed national security.”
The internet regulator said it had directed its Beijing and Guangdong branches to launch probes into content hosted by Tencent’s WeChat smartphone-based chat app, Sina’s Twitter-like Weibo service and Baidu’s Tieba forum platform.
“Acting on tip-offs from internet users, initial investigations by the Beijing and Guangdong branches of the Cyberspace Administration found that [these] platforms are all hosting violent and terrorist content, fake news and rumors and pornography disseminated by users,” the agency said in a statement on its official website.
“[Such] content harms national and public security, as well as social stability,” it said. “All three platforms are in breach of the Cybersecurity Law and other relevant laws, and have failed to carry out their duty to erase such content forbidden by law,” it said.
In June, the administration shuttered around 60 social media accounts on major platforms amid a crackdown on celebrity news and gossip as it began implementing the country’s Cybersecurity Law, which came into effect on June 1.
Companies have been told to collect and record data on any site or account that breaks the cybersecurity laws and report it to authorities.
Baidu told Reuters it felt “deep regret” over the content and will “actively cooperate with government departments to rectify the issue and increase the intensity of auditing.”
WeChat and Weibo have about 940 million and 350 million monthly active users, respectively, it said, but neither company responded to requests for comment, the agency said.
A source who formerly worked at Baidu said the company had previously come under pressure for allowing sexual services to be advertised via its maps feature.
Online free speech activist Wu Bin said the ruling Chinese Communist Party now appears to be operating a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to content it doesn’t like.
“The level of censorship and suppression of content on Sina Weibo, Baidu’s Tieba and WeChat have reached crazy proportions,” Wu said.
“Things were already bad enough, but that’s not enough for the Cyberspace Administration, and they want to step it up even more,” he said.
“They have an unlimited appetite [for control] and zero tolerance,” he said. “This regime is ruling us ... like the emperors back in feudal times.”
Focal point for dissent
Hebei-based journalist Zhu Xinxin said the authorities still fear social media could function as a focal point for dissent over party rule.
“These three platforms have a large number of users, and they are afraid that they could offer a meeting point for [activists and disgruntled members of the public],” he said. “Tieba mixes everything up and brings people together from different social classes, men, women, old and young.”
“They are all thrown together regardless of their profession,” he said.
Guangdong-based author Ye Du said the government is particularly keen to ensure that no shred of criticism or dissent is visible online ahead of the crucial 19th Party Congress, expected in November.
“The government wants to eradicate any trace of any ideological content that challenges the current regime,” Ye said. “There were already a number of important provisions in the Cybersecurity Law controlling the content that online news providers were allow to offer, and forcing them to engage in continuous self-censorship.”
“Now, content providers will be forced to turn up the heat on their users,” he said.
Reported by Yang Fan and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.