Thousands of independent news accounts disappear from China’s “clean, healthy” internet

By Elles Houweling

China’s internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), has published new guidelines to further regulate “unhealthy” online content in its latest crackdown on the tech industry. Following these latest regulatory changes, the country’s most prominent social media platforms, including WeChat and Weibo, have deleted thousands of independent financial news accounts.

As part of Beijing’s plan to foster a “clean and healthy” cyberspace, free from misinformation or information it deems harmful to society, the CAC released a new set of “opinions” on Wednesday, stipulating the responsibility that online platforms bear in managing content.

According to the guidelines, platforms need to ramp up their self-censorship capabilities and the moderation of content generated by their legions of users.

The announcement is part of China’s ongoing squeeze on online information dissemination, which has increasingly come to include apolitical content such as celebrity culture and stock market analysis.

Social media behemoths Tencent, which owns the super-app WeChat, and Sina, which owns China’s largest microblogging platform Weibo, were both ahead of the curve in showing their compliance.

Chinese media found that between September 10 and September 16, Tencent deleted 2,320 accounts, many of which regularly posted independent financial news. In a statement on Wednesday, the social media giant said it had launched an investigation into “self-media” outlets specialising in financial and stock market news.

Similarly, Weibo deleted over 50 accounts involved in “collecting, editing and publishing financial information”.

The Twitter-like platform explained earlier this month that “in accordance with the CAC’s requirements to ‘clean the internet’, Weibo has launched a special political campaign to delete illegal content posted by financial self-media.”

The term “self-media” is typically used to describe publishers and individuals that operate independently from the propaganda apparatus of the Communist Party.

The popular account “Fortune Big Bull Cat”, which had over three million users on Weibo, was “permanently banned”. Its WeChat account was also closed.

In its statement, Tencent said that many accounts were shut down for good, while others will be muted for 30 to 60 days, depending on their individual circumstances.

“Some online platforms still fail to have an adequate understanding of their responsibilities and can’t correctly identify their roles, fulfil their obligations to the fullest degree, establish comprehensive systems or compliantly manage internet practices,” the CAC statement said.

Moreover, the document also underlines that platforms are responsible for disseminating “correct political ideologies, public opinions and moral values”.

The guidelines very clearly order platforms to improve their content editing and review mechanisms. They are required to filter information involving national security, social welfare, people’s livelihoods and public interest. Platforms will, in addition, be required to report the oversight of their primary responsibilities to the relevant local cyber and information department on a yearly basis.

There are also new rules on procedures for sending out push notifications and strict controls on the frequency of these alerts.

Recently, President Xi Jinping has emphasised the need to “clean up” China’s cyberspace. As a result, internet and security watchdogs have waged a new campaign against so-called “black mouths”. This is the term for commentators who try to manipulate stock prices with online posts on social media and various other platforms.

Last month, the CAC also announced extensive rules to regulate the country’s “chaotic” celebrity culture. The internet watchdog called for a ban on social media platforms publishing popularity lists. In addition, the CAC has implemented stricter regulations on the sale of fan merchandise.

Soon after the implementation of the new rules, the social media accounts of various Chinese celebrities suddenly disappeared. Notably, the online presence of famous actress, director and Fendi brand ambassador Zhao Wei was deleted from various platforms. It is unclear why Zhao was targeted. However it has been speculated that her sudden online disappearance may be linked to her close ties to Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, who has also found himself on a collision course with the Chinese state recently.