China’s cybersecurity watchdog unveils two-month campaign to stamp out social media manipulation as part of industry crackdown

  • A new two-month campaign will focus on weeding out social media manipulation, including faking records, flaming rivals and unfairly influencing discussions
  • The latest move forms part of a national crackdown on ‘internet chaos’ since the start of the year

China’s internet watchdog has started a new campaign to weed out social media manipulation, including inflating engagement records, discrediting competitors and hiring ghostwriters to influence online discussions.

The campaign will keep authorities on alert to illegal or unsavoury practices through the Spring Festival, forming part and parcel of China’s mission to “clean up the internet” since the start of the year, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said in a statement late Thursday.

Those practices include fabricated sales on live-streaming channels, paid reviews on products and flaming rivals, among others. Earlier clampdowns have focused on stamping out targeted recommendation algorithms, containing the power and influence of online fan clubs and halting pop-up ads.

China’s internet behind the Great Firewall is rampant with manipulation for commercial purposes amid stiff competition for eyeballs. Tolerated in the past, they are now seen as part of the web chaos, or luan, that must be curbed as regulators seek to assert control to preserve social stability amid an economic slowdown.

The CAC held a meeting on Wednesday with provincial-level branches and representatives from online platform operators to kick-start the latest campaign. The aim is to “normalise the order of communication, protect the legitimate rights and interests of the people and maintain good market order,” the CAC said.

Under the new initiative, authorities are singling out fabricated sales and endorsements of products on short-video platforms, live-streaming and e-commerce sites. They will also look to stop activities by “purchased followers” or engagements on social media, video-streaming platforms and app stores.

The focus on live-streaming commerce means the booming sales channel will face harsh regulatory headwinds in the coming months. At least 1,000 live-streamers have reported additional tax liabilities and pleaded for leniency. Authorities have recently shamed a few, including Viya and Xueli Cherie, with hefty fines for tax breaches.

The CAC said the new campaign will initially tackle cooked-up reviews of products, food, tourist attractions, music or drama.

This followed an apology in October from Xiaohongshu, also known as Little Red Book, apologised for letting bloggers post heavily-filtered photos of sightseeing attractions on its lifestyle platform, deceiving tourists who visited the spots.

The CAC will also go after so-called “dark public relations” that harm or destroy competitors through online propaganda. At the same time, it will focus on “internet water army” or hired bots that are paid to endorse a product or discredit a person.

The campaign will be the last one in 2021 within a larger crackdown on “online chaos” to prevent vulgar and erotic content during the Spring Festival, the most important holiday in mainland China, and to censor “historical nihilism” which the government defines as discussion or research that challenges the official version of history.

Author: Coco Feng, SCMP

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