Connect with us

World News

The end of anonymity online in China

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Happy New Year! I hope you had a good rest over the holidays and feel ready to take on 2024. But for one more time, please allow me to indulge in a look back at 2023.

At the end of last month, I published an essay reflecting on how the prospects for anonymity online in China changed drastically last year. Following many smaller decisions that make posting anonymously more difficult, the largest blow came in October when all social media platforms in China demanded that certain users with large followings display their legal names.

The government and the platforms argue that the new rule can help prevent online harassment and misinformation. While anonymity can be associated with wrongdoing, their argument conveniently neglects what anonymity—a right that has existed since the invention of the internet—has afforded people online.

Who among us hasn’t participated in a niche online hobby that we didn’t tell our family about? Who insists that every online acquaintance call them by their real name? There’s comfort in knowing that my online persona and who I am in real life don’t have to be the same. Not everyone should, or deserves to, know everything about us.

Scholars I talked to have observed and found evidence of many benefits that come with anonymity in China. It gives people the courage to speak up against censorship or provide communal help to strangers. “We are more likely to do what’s risky when we feel there’s more protection,” says Xinyu Pan, a researcher at Hong Kong University. It’s particularly important to marginalized groups, from women to LGBTQ individuals, who feel that their identities could attract harassment online. They can find comfort and community in anonymity.

This topic is important for me both professionally and personally. As a reporter, I’m always watching what people are saying online and working to extract important information from between the lines. But I’ve also used Chinese social media personally for more than a decade, and my profiles and communities mean a lot to me, whether as archives of my life’s moments or places where I met dear friends.

That’s why I wrote the essay. And I’m worried there’s more change to come.

Vibe shifts are always small when they begin. I felt one earlier last year, when I started to notice little signs of aggression here and there that made me less comfortable sharing real-life experiences online. But soon they can begin to feel like a tsunami. And now, if people don’t want to end their digital lives, they don’t have much choice; the only option seems to be to give in and float with the waves, even if we don’t know where it’s taking us.

Consider that when it was first announced in October, platforms stated the real-name rule would only apply to accounts in more “serious” fields—people talking about politics, financial news, laws, health care. Even Weibo’s CEO, Wang Gaofei, replied to a user with 2 million followers who was worried about the rule, posting, “Took a look at [the] content. If it’s only an influencer sharing about their personal life, I don’t think they need to display their real names upfront.”

But as we’ve seen in the past, these kinds of “small” changes are really a slippery slope. Fast-forward to today and that Weibo user’s real name is already on their public profile. And other accounts on the platform that don’t engage in serious topics—pet influencers, comedians, artists, car bloggers—have all received messages that they need to display their names or their accounts’ reach will be restricted, essentially meaning they’d be shadow-banned on the platform.

Meanwhile, some platforms have acted even more quickly to implement the rule thoroughly. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, seems to be already displaying the real names of most users with more than 500,000 followers. And last week, accounts on Bilibili, a Chinese YouTube-like video platform, also started mass-displaying popular users’ real names.

For people like me, this all proves that our fear is not overblown: the introduction of the mandatory real-name rule will almost certainly lead to more strict and expansive restrictions for everyone. The tendency to control more will always prevail, as platforms tend to err on the side of caution in China’s stringent censorship ecosystem.

Perhaps the only glimmer of hope I’ve found is that users all over China have not given up. Through rounds of previous changes that restricted anonymity, they’ve come up with all kinds of workarounds to protect themselves, either by adopting shared identities or entrusting a group account to post content for them. These solutions are not guaranteed to work in the long term, but I don’t doubt people will continue to come up with creative solutions that we haven’t even thought of yet. As always, to report on internet censorship in China is to report on the ingenious grassroots resistance. Perhaps that’s at least something to look forward to in 2024.

What do you think about the value of social media anonymity? Let me know where you stand by writing to [email protected].

Catch up with China

1. A draft of a harsh new regulation regarding video games tanked the stocks of major Chinese tech companies and caused widespread market fears in December. Now, a Chinese official behind the regulation has been removed from his position. (Reuters $)

  • China’s domestic gaming industry was just starting to pick up after a lengthy freeze on game publishing approvals. (Pocket Gamer)

2. China has sanctioned five US defense companies for selling arms to Taiwan. (BBC)

3. In the fourth quarter of 2023, Chinese electric-vehicle maker BYD officially outsold Tesla globally for the first time. (Wall Street Journal $)

  • The company is now spending 2 billion RMB ($281 million) to reward its dealers. (Reuters $)
  • Want to know more about BYD? It was on our 15 Climate Tech Companies to Watch in 2023. (MIT Technology Review $)

4. As China has set aggressive goals for decarbonization, “dinosaur” state-owned companies are being forced to pivot to using more renewable energy. (Financial Times $)

5. For two decades, major Chinese e-commerce platforms like Alibaba didn’t offer a “refund-only” option for buyers. That’s finally changed. (South China Morning Post $)

6. Thermo Fisher, a US-based biotechnology company, says it has halted sales of DNA collection kits to Tibet. The sales were criticized after it was revealed that the Chinese police used these kits for mass DNA collection. (Axios)

Lost in translation

If you call up or message a customer service representative in China today, there’s a high chance you will be answered by an AI chatbot masquerading as a human. But as the publication China News Service reports, the technology has brought more frustration than convenience, since it often gives completely irrelevant or boilerplate responses. The users end up wasting much more time and energy trying to circumvent the AI and get to a human representative. Even though the technology is not yet mature, AI customer service is prevalent because it’s a fairly easy way for businesses to cut costs. And its use will only expand: the AI customer service market in China is expected to grow threefold in five years.

One more thing

Have you ever seen a Chinese terra-cotta warrior looking so expressive? Well, it’s not real; it was generated by Alibaba’s newly released image-to-video model. The feature, called “Everybody is a dancing king,” can move any still image into a dance TikTok and is included in Alibaba’s AI app Tongyi Qianwen. Predictably, it’s going a bit viral on social media. Wanna watch the (generated) dance moves of Napoleon and Jeff Bezos? Scroll down in this story by the Chinese publication QbitAI.

A terra-cotta warrior in a museum, doing an expressive dab pose as part of a viral dance routine.

QBITAI
Continue Reading