Weibo’s new policy to display user locations prompts some humour among netizens as Gates, Musk and Cook appear to be based in China

  • Weibo account of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is shown to be in the central province of Henan
  • Weibo accounts of Western tech gurus are likely run by entities or teams based in China on their behalf, acting as one-way PR channels

The new policy of Chinese social media platforms to display the location of users based on their internet protocol (IP) address has prompted invasion of privacy complaints from some but also humour, as it transpires that the Weibo accounts of some well-known Western entrepreneurs are based in China.

For example, the official Weibo account of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who joined the Chinese social media platform in 2010, is shown to be in the central province of Henan, based on his account’s IP address. Gates, who has 4 million followers on Weibo, has been quite active on the platform and his latest post on April 28 highlights a recent TED speech.

Tesla founder Elon Musk’s Weibo account is operated out of Beijing. According to his Weibo account information, Musk has nearly 2 million followers, far below the 90 million followers he has on Twitter. Musk’s latest Weibo post was published on April 23, with the entrepreneur saying that “Tesla China is doing incredible work”, seemingly endorsing the Shanghai government’s efforts to resume production at key industrial enterprises amid the city’s Covid-19 lockdown.

Meanwhile, Apple chief executive Tim Cook’s account is shown as based in Shanghai with 1.5 million followers. His latest Weibo post was published on April 15 and pertains to Apple’s support of clean energy among its suppliers.

One possible explanation for this state of affairs is that the Weibo accounts of Western tech gurus, which are mainly intended for a Chinese audience, are run by entities or teams based in China on their behalf. As such, the Weibo accounts mainly serve as one-way public relations channels for them with little real interaction with the audience.

Still, the reveal of the IP addresses of Western tech billionaires has triggered debate in China with some netizens seizing the chance to make fun of the situation by calling them “fellow townsmen”.

Weibo did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday, a public holiday in China.

In a notice displayed along with every account’s location, Weibo says that user locations are based on information from network operators.

The display of IP addresses at Weibo is part of a broad campaign in China to reveal the user location behind public online posts. Posts started, or shared, by IP addresses outside China have sometimes been suspected of being “foreign incursions” into Chinese cyberspace designed to disturb social order.

Last month, Chinese social media platforms including Weibo, super app WeChat, Quora-like Q&A platform Zhihu and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, started displaying user locations based on their IP addresses, a feature that users cannot disable.

A user’s province in China, or a person’s country or region if the IP address is located overseas, are now shown on their profile page and alongside their comments to other users’ posts.

While Beijing has been tightening control over online platforms for the past year, the latest change came amid rising public discontent over the handling of stringent pandemic lockdown measures in cities such as Shanghai and Changchun.

User posts about food shortages, the tough conditions in some makeshift quarantine hospitals, and the deaths of some residents with acute medical conditions who were declined treatment because of strict control measures, went viral on social media platforms before being taken down.

The platforms said the latest measure, which is not mandated by law, is meant to “prevent netizens from pretending to be locals and spreading rumours”. Weibo also cited the need to combat “fake information” related to hot topics such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic as reasons for the move.

The measure has been met with a mixed reaction in the country, with some voicing support and others criticising the invasion of privacy.

Author: Xinmei Shen, SCMP

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