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

One hashtag calling for the feature to be revoked quickly accumulated 8,000 posts and was viewed more than 100 million times before it was censored in late April. A university student in Zhejiang province sued Weibo, the Chinese social platform, in March for leaking personal information without his consent when the platform automatically showed his location. Others have pointed out the hypocrisy of the practice, since celebrities, government accounts, and the chief executive of Weibo have all been exempted from the location tags.

Despite the pushback, the authorities have signaled the changes are likely to last. An article in the state-run publication, China Comment, argued the location labels were necessary to “cut off the black hand manipulating the narratives behind the internet cable.” A draft regulation from the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator, stipulates that user IP addresses must be displayed in a “prominent way.”

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

With the worsening relationship with United States and China and propaganda repeatedly blaming malign foreign forces for dissatisfaction in China, Mr. Han said the new policy could be quite effective at snuffing out complaints.

“People worrying about foreign interference is a tendency right now. That’s why it works better than censorship. People buy it, ”he said.

The vitriol can be overwhelming. One Chinese citizen, Mr. Li, who spoke on condition that only his surname be used for privacy reasons, was targeted by trolls after his profile was linked to the United States, where he lived. Nationalist influencers accused him of working from overseas to “incite protest” in western China over a post that criticized the local government of handling a student’s sudden death. The accounts listed him and several others as examples of “spy infiltration.” A post to publicly shame them was liked 100,000 times before it was eventually censored.

Inundated by derogatory messages, he had to change his Weibo user name to stop harassers from tracing him. Even though he has used Weibo for more than 10 years, he is wary of the baseless attacks these days. “They want me to shut up, so I’ll shut up,” said Mr. Li said.

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