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Influencers, online mobs targeted in China social media cleanup

March 28, 2023 Updated Tue., March 28, 2023 at 8:42 p.m.

A person uses a smartphone in Hong Kong, China, in January, 2021; China plans to crack down on harmful social media content.    (Lam Yik/Bloomberg)
A person uses a smartphone in Hong Kong, China, in January, 2021; China plans to crack down on harmful social media content.   (Lam Yik/Bloomberg)
By Low De Wei</p><p>and Phila Siu Washington Post

China plans to crack down on harmful social media content in a sign that the country’s internet firms – already roiled by previous curbs – will face continued scrutiny from the authorities.

The steps include “rectifying” the spread of certain content on short video platforms and taking action to control teenage addiction to those apps, Niu Yibing, vice minister of the Cyberspace Administration of China, the national internet regulator, said at a Tuesday briefing.

It’s the latest sign that regulators want to increase control on a format popularized by tech giants like TikTok owner ByteDance. The steps also echo talking points from China’s powerful National Radio and Television Administration. The body said in February that it’s considering ways to tighten oversight of the short video industry, without naming any companies.

In recent years, Beijing has clamped down on the tech industry in the world’s second-largest economy. The government has tried to wean youth off excessive gaming and other pursuits considered undesirable. In 2021, the authorities abruptly limited gaming time for children to three hours a week, spooking investors and cutting into the profits of companies including Tencent Holdings Ltd. and NetEase Inc.

Niu also said that China will try to stop so-called “water armies” – or users paid to spread certain messages online. Officials plan to take action against people who make money from harming companies’ and entrepreneurs’ reputations on the internet, according to Shen Yue, another CAC official.

The regulator wants to guide internet platforms to establish a mechanism for supervising how media outlets run by individuals or amateur groups make their money.

Companies have complained about online trolls in the past. Carmaker Great Wall Motor Co. even offered $1.5 million to expose such users in a widely-mocked plan. Still, it’s unclear how effective such moves will be, since China’s cyberspace is already subject to strict monitoring. Nationalist cyber-armies have been known to target those deemed critical of China’s government and to pressure officials and websites to censor them.

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