China Just Outlawed Clickbait and Sensationalist Headlines

The new regulations will make it even harder for people to criticize Beijing's coronavirus response.
March 3, 2020, 2:49pm
The new regulations will make it even harder for people to criticize Beijing's coronavirus response.

Even the draconian online censorship laws haven’t stopped Chinese citizens from posting criticisms of the government's delayed response to the coronavirus crisis. So Beijing has imposed a new set of rules specifically codifying what's legal and what’s not — including sexual innuendo and celebrity gossip.

The new rules, dubbed “Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem,” are designed to promote “positive” and uplifting content that supports the ideologies of the Communist Party. They were first introduced by the cyberspace administration in December, when some Chinese people were voicing support online for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

But the law, which went into effect Sunday, will now be used to further clamp down on citizens’ efforts to raise concerns about how the government’s delayed response to the coronavirus outbreak made the situation much worse. Almost 3,000 people have already died from coronavirus in China.

READ: China Is erasing tributes to coronavirus whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang

The provisions also lay out exactly the type of content the authorities in Beijing want to see posted online. This includes topics such as explaining Party doctrine, sharing economic and social achievements, and China’s increasing international influence.

The rules codify what Beijing views as illegal content, including posts that harm the nation's honor and interests, incite ethnic hatred, or promote terrorism or extremism.

They also make it unacceptable for users to post content that is seen as negative, with the broadly-worded law specifically calling out sexual innuendo, celebrity gossip, or “other content with a negative impact on the online ecosystem.”

According to a translation of the rules by Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow at the Yale law school’s Paul Tsai China Center, these include:

  • Sensationalizing headlines

  • Excessive celebrity intrigue and gossip

  • Improper comments on tragedies

  • Sexual innuendo, suggestion, or enticement

  • Coarse or vulgar language and behavior

But the authorities in Beijing are very keen to make sure that people don’t post anything that would portray the country or its leadership in a negative light.

The government is already using its censorship powers to silence critics at home and abroad. In the wake of the death of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who tried to warn about the threat from the coronavirus weeks before the government officially recognized the crisis, Beijing erased the thousands of messages of anger and grief posted on social media site Weibo.

But now it has made it illegal to even post that kind of content online in the first place.

While Chinese censorship and surveillance system — known as the Great Firewall — is the most comprehensive anywhere in the world, it is not foolproof. Chinese citizens have always found ways to circumvent Beijing’s draconian system, and the same is happening during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We certainly come across people who are using coded language to describe things against the government that would essentially evade the automated censorship systems,” Sam Williams, CEO of Arweave, a company that is building a system to capture critical information on the internet and store it permanently.

One tactic Williams has noticed in recent days is Weibo users using the biography sections of their profiles to repost the freedom of speech hashtag that the government censored in the wake of Li’s death.

“It seems that the search censorship algorithms are ignoring these for now,” Williams said. “I doubt this will last long, but it shows that spirit of dissent that bubbled up after the death of Li Wenliang is very much intact.”

An editorial in the state-run People’s Daily on Sunday described the new regulations as a “good start for Chinese internet management,” adding that they could “eradicate the weeds in cyberspace.”

China has long tried to maintain tight control over its internet space, and regularly censored this content in the past, but the news rules mean that anyone who posts anything online is now legally liable for their own content. Critics now believe that the rules will spread even more fear among Chinese citizens, who will end up self-censoring rather than face the wrath of the authorities.

“I think that these rules are an acknowledgment that the government — even though we've seen flare-ups of pushback against censorship — is saying, ‘Look, we're still in the driver's seat here,’ and I think online control of the narrative around the coronavirus is more important than ever,” Samm Sacks, an expert on China’s digital economy at New America, a Washington-based think tank, told VICE News.

But, the new laws have been written so broadly, they give the administration a wide scope to interpret them as they see fit. And this is a very deliberate decision to make people think twice before saying something online — no matter how innocuous it may seem.

“That's how every Chinese law and regulation works,” Sacks said. “They deliberately make them vague and ambiguous to create space so they can be used selectively as a tool if the government sees fit. It has a deterrent effect too, because people never really know, is this in bounds or not. It can help contribute to self-censorship.”

Cover: A young woman browses on her notebook computer through the web page of Chinese online social networking and microblogging service Weibo in Berlin, Germany, 19 March 2014. Weibo is the Chinese competitor to Twitter. Photo by: Jens Kalaene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images