China’s persistent discontent with online content

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While Bill Clinton’s famous quip that regulating the internet was like “trying to nail jello to a wall” is often ridiculed as naïve, China’s continued struggle to address new forms of content and their impact suggests the Internet is still every bit the runny mess in China that it is elsewhere.

As the influence of individual presenters has grown, rules are increasingly holding independent content creators to standards once reserved for more formal producers. This has included a growing body of rules for regulating the content of public (verified and business accounts) social media accounts, livestreaming, online fiction, and even user comment sections.

A new Code of Conduct for Online Presenters released last week applies to all those who livestream, interact with users in real time, or appear in recorded a/v programs; and even to AI-generated ‘virtual presenters’. Along with controlling misinformation and messages competing with the Party’s own line, the impact of media on public opinion and mood is at the heart of China’s content regulation, and the Code of Conduct recognizes that internet presenters bear responsibility to society arising from their important role in disseminating information, enriching cultural life, and promoting social development. This means that they have an obligation to encourage content viewed as bettering the public, and to avoid crass content that lowers the level of public discourse. The “correct values orientation” (including political orientation and worldview) is set by the state, and embodied by the Core Socialist Values- a ubiquitous civics and morality campaign.

From the ‘illegal’ to the ‘negative’.

A related trend involves not only suppressing individuals who break legally-prescribed restrictions on content thought to threaten national security, public safety, national interests, or national unity, but also limiting comment the spread of legal content that is viewed as simply having a negative effect on society.

These categories were laid out in the groundbreaking 2019 Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem. Those Provisions and subsequent regulations have eroded the distinction between the two groups for purposes of censorship, although only illegal content can result in prosecutions.

NegativeIllegalEncouraged

  1. Sensationalizing headlines
  2. Excessive celebrity intrigue and gossip
  3. Improper comments on tragedies
  4. Sexual innuendo, suggestion, or enticement
  5. Gore and horror
  6. Incitement of discrimination
  7. Coarse or vulgar language and behavior
  8. Bad habits or dangerous activity that might be imitated by minors
  9. Other content with a negative impact to the online information ecosystem

(Article 7)

  1. Content opposing the basic principles set forth in the Constitution;
  2. Content endangering national security, divulging State secrets, subverting the national regime, and destroying national unity;
  3. Content harming the nation’s honor and interests;
  4. Content demeaning or denying the deeds and spirit of heroes and martyrs;
  5. Content promoting terrorism or extremism,
  6. Content inciting ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, or destroying ethnic unity;
  7. Content undermining the nation’s policy on religions, promoting cults and superstitions;
  8. Dissemination of rumors, disrupting economic or social order;
  9. Obscenity, erotica, gambling, violence, murder, terror or instigating crime;
  10. Content insulting or defaming others, infringing other persons’ honor, privacy, or other lawful rights and interests;
  11. Other content prohibited by laws or administrative regulations.

(Article 6)

  1. Spreading and explaining Party doctrine
  2. Spreading Party action
  3. Spreading economic and social achievement
  4. Spreading the Core Socialist Values
  5. Guidance to the public on social concerns
  6. Increasing international influence
  7. Other positive and wholesome content

(Article 5)

In going after ‘negative content’ China has begun a form of domestic culture war, attacking a range of irritants such as out of control fan culture, gaming addiction, non-mainstream aesthetics, and celebrity influence, that are seen as leading the public down a dangerous path.

Deplatforming and the Fight Against Misinformation

Article 14 of the Code of Conduct, with its 30 categories of prohibited conduct, is likely to be the most attention grabbing, but is largely a rehash of previous rules such as on short-video content and manipulative tactics to encourage online “tips”. While it is interesting, of course to see prohibitions on ‘belittling’ Party and government leadership given equal weight and indiscriminately mixed with rules against false advertising and for the protection of privacy and youth, the list itself isn’t terribly new.

The Code does seem go further than prior authority in a few areas, however. One example is calling for the regular publication of a list of presenters who do not comply with the Code’s rules on morality or comply with laws. Previous rules mentioned industry boycotts of presenters with ethical issues (on or off “stage”) but this seems to be a major step towards formalizing full-internet de-platforming of individuals making undesirable content or exerting undesirable influence.

Another change involves requiring those presenting on specialized areas such as health, education, or law, to have qualifications in that area. (article 13) While the Covid pandemic and US political crisis have highlighted the danger of misinformation, the broad definition of presenters makes this a strict barrier to the speech of ordinary citizens, and brings many online conversations under the existing credentialing apparatus.

New Provisions on Managing User Account Information have related provisions (articles 7, 11) requiring that claims of professional expertise and experience in user’s account information be truthful. Online platforms are told to request that all user accounts seeking to produce content on specialized topics provide their qualifications or information on their professional background, place special labels about qualifications on account information pages.

Other measures try to stop misinformation and misrepresentations to the public. These include restating prohibitions on false associations with official sources and government bodies, as well as new requirements on the display of IP ranges to locate accounts, and for entity accounts to reflect their nature and scope of operations.

Many of these rules seek to inform the public to better understand where information is coming from, a greater burden is place on service providers. Diverse operations including search engines, online publication services, instant messengers, livestream platforms, and application download services all have the primary responsibility for reviewing and ensuring the compliance of user content.

About Jeremy Daum 119 Articles
Jeremy Daum is a Senior Fellow of the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center, based in Beijing, with over a decade of experience working in China on collaborative legal reform projects. His principal research focus is criminal procedure law, with a particular emphasis on protections of vulnerable populations such as juveniles and the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, and is also an authority on China’s ‘Social Credit System’. Jeremy has spoken about these issues at universities throughout China and in the U.S.; and has co-authored a book on U.S. Capital Punishment Jurisprudence for Chinese readers. He is also the founder and contributing editor of the collaborative translation and commentary site Chinalawtranslate.com, dedicated to improving mutual understanding between legal professionals in China and abroad. He translates, writes, edits, does web-design, graphic design, billing, tech support, and social media outreach for China Law Translate.

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