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

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

Despite the pushback, authorities have signaled that the changes are expected to last. An article in the state-run China Comment claimed the location tags were needed to “cut off the dark hand manipulating the narratives behind the internet cable”. A draft regulation of the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s Internet regulator, stipulates that users’ IP addresses must be displayed in a “visible” manner.

“If censorship is about processing the messages and who sends the messages, that mechanism really works on the audience,” said Han Rongbin, a professor of media and politics at the University of Georgia.

With relations with the United States and China deteriorating and propaganda repeatedly blaming malign foreign forces for discontent in China, Han said the new policy could be quite effective in stifling complaints.

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

The vitriol can be overwhelming. A Chinese citizen, Mr Li, who spoke on the 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 have accused him of working from overseas to “incite protests” in western China over a post that criticized the local government for handling the sudden death of a student. Accounts mentioned him and several others as examples of “spy infiltration”. A post to publicly humiliate them was liked 100,000 times before it was finally censored.

Inundated with derogatory messages, he had to change his Weibo username to prevent stalkers from finding him. Even though he has been using Weibo for more than 10 years, he is wary of baseless attacks these days. “They want me to shut up, so I will shut up,” Mr Li said.

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