Social media and online platforms have emerged as the primary means of communication and information transmission in the digital age. Chinese social media platforms currently face huge challenges in censoring information on political topics. Restrictions on speech and subject blocking fall under this category. These actions resulted in limitations on the freedom of expression and information distribution, sparking intense debate. This blog will go deeper into the ethical principles guiding them as well as the technical difficulties faced by content control on Chinese sites.
The balance between privacy and free speech
Freedom of speech represents the fundamental moral right of every human being, allowing individuals to freely express their opinions and communicate with others (Howard, 2019). However, in China’s ethical considerations, media platforms must carefully weigh the relationship between this right and the right to privacy to ensure social stability and public safety while respecting individual free expression. This balance is a sensitive and complex issue that requires comprehensive consideration of various factors to safeguard the overall interests of society.
China has long been known for its strict policies and controls when it comes to online regulation and censorship. Due to the rapid expansion of Internet technology worldwide, different nations have varying levels of Internet regulation. In contrast, censorship has different focuses. China’s particular political position or particular social media content will be subject to limitations or control. Platformisation plays out differently in China than in Europe or the United States, but more complexly, it is not just around surveillance but also around governance.
A complex and interesting example could be Google. China’s consumer market is undoubtedly a very attractive target for technology giants. But why did Google withdraw from China? Google, or any internet company, could be at serious risk if they underestimate the threat of Chinese interference (Ghosh, 2018). If Internet companies succumb to censorship and regulation in the Chinese market, it may lead to the leakage of intellectual property rights, which poses a serious threat to the company’s innovation and competitiveness. In addition, escalating government requirements may adversely affect the Company’s operational and technical architecture, increasing the costs and risks of maintaining the business.
While free speech is important, internet companies also need to take into account economic and business realities. In a market like China, companies must carefully weigh the challenges of maintaining free speech principles against practical business operations. This raises a complex ethical question about how power, influence and a company’s commercial responsibilities are weighed.
The special situation of China’s Internet ecology
Instead of bogging down under censorship, China is thriving. Understanding the complexity of media regulation in China requires us to have an in-depth understanding of the special circumstances of China’s social media market.
Platform capabilities and decisions
Due to the lack of accurate definition of the rights and responsibilities of third parties in platform policies, users are unable to determine the whereabouts of their personal information. This constitutes the immaturity of the privacy protection system.
Based on interviews with a large number of users who use WeChat, the following conclusions can be drawn. Users feel a certain degree of freedom in the process of using WeChat (Chen and Cheung, 2018). But when asked about personal privacy in apps, people indicated a reduced awareness of their freedom and privacy rights. By default, WeChat, as a mainstream social platform, has become an indispensable part of modern communication in China. This gives the platform a unique and influential power: the ability to control user privacy and shape new privacy norms. This branch can involve how Chinese social media platforms handle user data and personal information.
Social order and government control
China is the world’s largest authoritarian regime, which means that the government has extremely high authority and control over national affairs and social management (Zeng et al., 2017). At the same time, China has the world’s largest Internet user population, which implies that hundreds of millions of Chinese people utilize the Internet and engage in online social interactions. As a result of these reasons, China has devised sophisticated and distinctive Internet governance techniques. This involves Internet censorship, restriction, and filtering in order to maintain social order and government control.
Information seeking in times of crisis
People’s reliance on the media has become even stronger during the COVID-19 crisis. During times of crisis more people use social media to exchange information related to their safety. This trend is seen in both democracies and autocracies. According to Chang et al. (2022), they examined changes in China’s access to information during the crisis. During this period, more Chinese people accessed platforms that are not available in China, such as Twitter, to search for information. For the Twitter analysis, 1,448,850 tweets (101,553 accounts) from mainland China were collected from December 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. Because they may seek to circumvent censorship or find alternative sources of information.
This has led to a significant increase in the number of people following politically sensitive accounts, while expanding the scope of information searches to include previously censored political information, known as the information spillover effect.
This situation leads people to circumvent content censorship and may also look for information that is not related to the crisis but has been censored for a long time, such as keywords that are automatically blocked on China’s Weibo. This phenomenon highlights the dynamics of information access during crises and the potential impact of information on political sentiment and governance.
Platforms face the challenge of balancing users and political positions. On the one hand, technology companies need to protect users’ privacy and freedom of expression when regulating content. On the other hand, the need to comply with government regulatory requirements forces technology companies to consider the social responsibilities they face.
In fact, the Chinese media is not without countermeasures. It also has unique methods of restricting political content when protecting equal rights. In regulating content related to online hate speech, China adopts a three-tier rule. Generally speaking, state regulation is superior to speech protection. For example, broadly racist and religious hate speech that is considered a threat to China’s national security is effectively regulated through prior restrictions and government censorship. However, this method frequently leads to the repression of free expression and equality (Chen, 2022). Platformization manifests itself differently in China than in Europe or the United States, but more complexly, it does not just revolve around surveillance but also around governance (de Kloet, Poell, Zeng, & Chow, 2019).
In summary, there are many differences in the regulation of the Internet based on the cultural and political stances of various countries. China’s content regulation of social media has characteristics that are different from other countries. Includes technical complexities and additional ethical considerations. Continuous review and exploration are needed when studying social media content regulation in China. Because there are still ethical and technical issues to be resolved moving forward.
Chang, K.-C., Hobbs, W. R., Roberts, M. E., & Steinert-Threlkeld, Z. C. (2022). COVID-19 increased censorship circumvention and access to sensitive topics in China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(4), e2102818119.
Chen, G. (2022). How equalitarian regulation of online hate speech turns authoritarian: a Chinese perspective. Journal of Media Law, 159-179.
Chen, Z.T., Cheung, M. (2018). Privacy perception and protection on Chinese social media: a case study of WeChat. Ethics and Information Technology, 20(4), 279–289.
de Kloet, J., Poell, T., Zeng, G., & Chow, Y. F. (2019). The platformization of Chinese Society: infrastructure, governance, and practice. Chinese Journal of Communication, 12(3), 249-256. https://doi.org/10.1080/17544750.2019.1644008
Ghosh, D. (2018, October 16). The Tightrope Google Has to Walk in China. Harvard Business Review.
Howard, J. W. (2019). Free Speech and Hate Speech. Annual Review of Political Science, 22, 93-109.
Zeng, J., Stevens, T. and Chen, Y. (2017), China’s Solution to Global Cyber Governance: Unpacking the Domestic Discourse of “Internet Sovereignty”. Politics and Policy, 45: 432-464.
Chinese Social Media: Technical Challenges and Ethical Dialectics of Content Monitoring © 2023 by Chen Cheng is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0