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China’s Internet: The Biggest Influencer Is the State

How China uses social metrics to guide its censorship strategy

The Chinese Communist Party’s response to champion doubles tennis player Peng Shuai was about more than just dismissing an accusation and protecting a high-ranking Party member. It was about silencing influencers and suppressing social mobilization.

In a previous article, we looked at how Beijing’s propaganda machine used fake Twitter accounts to amplify messaging around tennis champion Peng Shuai after she disappeared from the public and was censored on the Chinese internet.

Wilson Center scholar Rui Zhong writes in Wired magazine, “This is not about topics. This censorship is fundamentally about the dismantling of social resources.”

Rui Zhong’s article is helpful in contextualizing the Chinese Communist Party’s targets for online censorship. She says that most analyses of Chinese internet censorship focus on specific words, phrases, or topics, rather than the overall pattern of what is being censored. This makes China’s censorship seem inconsistent and haphazard. In reality, the content is secondary to whether something has the potential to mobilize social groups. Zhong writes,

Content takedowns not only address the shorter-term problem of text or images that government actors want to remove, but they also weaken activists’ ability to rebuild by isolating them and dampening their ability to create new resources. Censors can ensure that these groups stay silent. Conceptualizing censorship in a solely piecemeal way neglects the damage that destroying the foundations of organizing and civic society components can do.

Rui Zhong, “Peng Shuai and the Real Goal of Chinese Censorship” at Wired

While the means may be high-tech, the strategy is not. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt points to social isolation as a critical component of totalitarian movements. Dictators cannot be totalitarians without massive numbers of people, but it is the mobilization of the people that is the very thing that can topple dictators. The Chinese Communist Party itself came to power through mobilization and rebellion. By ensuring people exist as isolated individuals, the Party and loyalty to the state remains the driver of mobilization (See pages 316-318 in the 1971 edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism).

A Study on Going Viral

Rui Zhang references a study from June 2021 in China Quarterly in which the authors analyzed Chinese government documents, manuals on “opinion guidance,” and leaked Weibo files to determine what topics get censored and why they are censored. Here is what they found:

Our findings suggest that the state is most worried about controlling the virality of content, the influence of individuals and the ability of discussion on social media to mobilize and incite. To shape the course of a discussion or to reduce the virality of a discussion, the state eliminates certain types of posts, reduces the influence of leaders and gives a freer rein to the “nobodies” (for example, by allowing small users greater leeway than big users).

Mary Gallagher and Blake Miller, “Who Not What: The Logic of China’s Information Control Strategy” at Cambridge University Press

The CCP is concerned with select “opinion leaders” that can potentially guide public opinion and “organize individuals around counter-hegemonic ideas.” The censors label these opinion leaders “Big V” users, to indicate famous “verified” users of interest to the Cyberspace Administration of China. These users usually have thousands of followers and are particularly popular among young people. The Chinese government knows that it cannot control the internet through massive repression, so it uses a more targeted approach. As the authors of the China Quarterly article explain,

Instead, the CCP has developed tactics to reduce the authority of new voices, limit their virality and eliminate or co-opt alternate sources of leadership and influence. The battle for online public opinion dictates an ambitious approach that seeks to allow for online expression while also suppressing the rise of influential voices and viral discussions.

Mary Gallagher and Blake Miller, “Who Not What: The Logic of China’s Information Control Strategy” at Cambridge University Press

The Chinese government gives netizens a sense of freedom by allowing small-time users to get away with more than the Big V users. Based on instruction manuals, rather than taking a content-based approach to monitoring online interactions, censors use social metrics, similar to what American social media companies use to enhance engagement:

Instead, social metrics such as re-post counts and fan/friend counts are viewed as the key inputs to “public opinion early warning systems.” Similarly, public opinion emergency management reports published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences recommend using aggregate search volume and other measures of public attention to identify “hot topics.”

Mary Gallagher and Blake Miller, “Who Not What: The Logic of China’s Information Control Strategy” at Cambridge University Press

Facebook’s algorithms do the same thing, but with the opposite goal. They are designed to enhance engagement, which ends up promoting virality, while the Cyberspace Administration of China’s algorithms try to predict virality and stymie engagement. Facebook will overlook content violations by big-name celebrity users, while the CCP will hold Big V celebrity users to stricter standards than everyone else.

The Dictator’s Dilemma and the Paradox of Social Media

The China Quarterly article points to the paradox of social media. On the one hand, it gives the government an idea of actual public opinion, something that is difficult to ascertain in a dictatorship where people are inclined to say what a leader wants to hear. On the other hand, social media has been used to mobilize groups, including groups that sought to topple authoritarian regimes.

The Arab Spring and the Hong Kong democracy protests demonstrate the power of social media to assemble people under a common cause. As does the #MeToo movement and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Social media helped mobilize the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. And militant groups used social media to enact violence against ethnic minorities in Ethiopia and Myanmar.

While all these online social movements had different goals and motivations and took place in different contexts, to the CCP, they are all in the same category because they are all a threat to stability and control. In a December article in The Diplomat, Zhuoran Li explains,

Celebrities and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) represent two different sources of mobilization, and this difference drives the conflict between the party and the entertainment industry. Mass mobilization is embedded in the CCP’s identity; it is the party’s “secret weapon” and route to victory…As a result, the CCP carefully maintains itself as the only source of mobilization in China and crushes other mobilization efforts, such as religious groups, labor movements, and civil society.

Zhuoran Li, “What’s Behind China’s Crackdown on Celebrities?” at The Diplomat

Bitter Winter documents the systematic oppression of all religious groups in China. And in his book, We Have Been Harmonized(2020), Kai Strittmatter says that even though China claims to be Marxist, the government arrested fifty young Marxists for gathering in support of union rights for factory workers because their assembly posed a threat to the local government’s authority.

If something gets international scrutiny, such as Peng Shuai’s case, then the censors step in. Additionally, whenever an important event looms, such as June 4, the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in China, or the 2022 Winter Olympics, then the censors will be extra restrictive with online content. 

In this light, we can understand why people like Hong Kong-born, Canadian Cantopop-star Denise Ho, along with several other journalists at a pro-democracy news outlet in Hong Kong, were arrested. Or why Jack Ma was disappeared in November 2020. Or why China’s superstar singer, actor, director, and producer “Vicki” Zhao Wei was scrubbed from China’s internet in August 2021. And this is the reason some people predict Peng Shuai will fade from public life.

No one is allowed to be a bigger Influencer than the Party.

In another article I will look at how the CCP has employed AI bots and hired companies to give state-sanctioned messages a veneer of virality.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China’s Internet: The Biggest Influencer Is the State