China’s Internet Censors Try a New Trick: Revealing Users’ Locations

A hashtag that calls for a feature to be canceled quickly collects 8,000 posts and was viewed more than 100 million times before it was censored in late April. A university student in Zhejiang Province filed a lawsuit against Chinese social platform Weibo in March for leaking personal information without his consent when the platform automatically reveals his location. Others have pointed to the hypocrisy of the practice, as celebrities, government accounts and Weibo’s chief executive have been exempted from location tags.

Despite the pushback, authorities have indicated that the changes are likely to survive. An article in the state-run publication, China Comment, argued that “location labels are necessary to cut off the black hand that manipulates Internet descriptions with back descriptions.” The country’s Internet regulator, China’s Cyberspace Administration’s draft regulation, states that user IP addresses must be displayed “prominently.”

“If censorship is about dealing with messages and message senders, this method is really working on the audience,” said Han Rongbin, a professor of media and politics at the University of Georgia.

With the deteriorating relations with the United States and China and the propaganda repeatedly blaming bad foreign forces for the discontent in China, Mr. Hahn said the new policy could be very effective in resolving complaints.

“It’s a trend right now that people are worried about foreign intervention. That’s why it works better than censorship. People buy it,” he said.

Vitriol can be overwhelming. A Chinese citizen, Mr. Lee, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of his privacy concerns, was targeted by trolls after his profile was linked to the United States, where he lived. Nationalist influencers accused him of working abroad to “provoke protests” in a post criticizing the local government for handling the accidental death of a student in western China. Accounts listed him and several others as examples of “spy infiltration”. The post that embarrassed him in public was selected 100,000 times before it was finally censored.

Drowned with abusive messages, he had to change his Weibo username to prevent harassers from tracing him. Although he has used Weibo for over 10 years, he is wary of baseless attacks these days. “They want me to shut up, so I’ll keep quiet,” Mr. Said Lee.

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