China’s censorship of social media platforms has largely been focused on speech that targets or criticizes the government, until recently. The Cyberspace Administration of China’s (CAC) new regulations will target sexual innuendo, in particular 25 of the most popular “dirty words” in China.
Citizen Lab Research Fellow Jason Q. Ng told Business Insider that the language being used is explicit but harmless.
“In many ways, we’d assume that China has been stepping back away from these certain issues,” said Ng. “With the drive against pornography, rumors, and these vulgar words, we’ve been seeing renewed attention to the moralistic aspect of trying to govern anything online.”
These new regulations are part of a broader push by the Chinese government to clean up the Internet according to stricter moral standards. They come on the heel of an anti-pornography crackdown last year, which the government has claimed is part of a larger attempt to protect youth from dangerous online content.
Ng’s research into Asian messing applications and Chinese censorship practices was also referenced in an article by Tech In Asia. The article’s author explains that based on Ng’s findings, it is clear that social and political subjects comprise the bulk of censorship efforts. She writes: “In nearly 34,000 posts Jason collected, Tibetan separation (zang du, 藏独), princeling (tai zi dang, 太子党, Tiananmen (天安门), Wen Jiabao (温家宝), strike (ba gong, 罢工, June 4 (liu si, 六四), Falun (falun, 法轮) were almost absolute taboos on China’s Internet.”
Censorship messages are often ambiguous, meaning that rather than telling the user directly that the content is censored, a message may say “This content has been reported by multiple people, and the related content is unable to be shown.” Ng explained that allowing users to “report” what they deem inappropriate content has allowed WeChat to give the impression of “impartial moderation.”
Discussions related to events such as the Tiananmen Square protests are obvious targets for censorship, including on messaging application Weibo. Ng said that censorship in China means that you can send a message that does not appear to the recipient until “after a few hours or the next day, because someone had to read it to validate it manually. Though the message can seem to be sent, it can remain unavailable to the recipient.” The most common method used to avoid this censorship infrastructure is employing code names discuss a sensitive subject. For example, to speak of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, “May 35” is often used as a code.
Facebook’s attempts to overcome the ban of its site in China have been led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has repeatedly expressed interest in expanding in the country. An obstacle to this China’s Great Firewall, censorship infrastructure that blocks access to several foreign websites. Much of this censorship occurs in real time, and in an interview with The Kernel magazine, Ng said that that this is due to the government outsourcing censorship to private companies. “I think the government has been very clever with the way they’ve basically set up various regulations, rules, directives—some formal, some informal—about what is acceptable content online. They’ve basically outsourced and decentralized censorship to all these different companies, threatening them with potential punishment of being shut down if they don’t do a good job” said Ng.
Companies that provide online services, even giants such as Google, are often on the end of threats by the Chinese government to censor or shut down. This has the effect of companies overcompensating when deleting content. He added, “If you’re relying on these companies to censor themselves, they’re more than likely to perhaps to over-censor, particularly when it comes to issues that might be borderline.”
Recently, China’s censorship practices came to the fore when the state restricted coverage of a ferry capsizing in the Yangtze river, killing 431 people. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Ng explained that journalists were directed away from the scene, told not to publish online content, and rely on government press releases for updates. Referring to past natural disasters such as the 2011 Yunnan earthquake where there was widespread coverage, Ng said that the Chinese government learned a lesson from not being “in control of the message on social media.” He went on, saying that “in the current case, there has been a much more proactive stance on trying to shut down information.” Via a Global Times article, the Chinese government critiscized Western media for what it called unfair reporting on issues within China, and a tendency to highlight only the worst stories in the country, neglecting the positive aspects of development.