In Case You Missed It: Digital Media and Press Freedom in the Era of Big Tech — A Case Study on China

By Sam Thielman

The state of the Chinese internet is a source of both constant fascination and intense frustration to American journalists used to the West’s hectic information flow. On the one hand, China’s vast array of cultures and and its unique economic landscape are of tremendous interest; on the other, information about Chinese national affairs arrives in the West mediated in one of two ways: by a strict information-control regime operated by the country’s ruling party, or by foreign reporting that may not understand its many nuances.

On February 1, The Tow Center for Digital Journalism hosted a half-day symposium with the Committee to Protect Journalists to break down the thorny problems of research into digital media in China, the state of information dissemination on the internet within the authoritarian government’s structures, and the role of platforms hungry to take part in the growing economy.

Organized by Tow Center researchers Mia Shuang Li and Emilie Xie, the symposium opened with a presentation by Li and Xie on the “self-media” phenomenon on WeChat among Chinese internet users. Because the Chinese internet is heavily censored, WeChat’s encrypted functions support the un-policed rise of the same kind of “influencers” on its service that Americans might see on Instagram or YouTube. “[One] reason why this is happening on WeChat is that it’s also a digital wallet,” Li explained. “It has a very mature monetization model: You can sell direct ads, you can run banner ads, people can tip you — so there’s a patron model built in. Just from [an overview of a few] different channels and the size of their audiences, you can see that a lot of influencers are making a considerable income from from this business model.” Slides from the presentation can be viewed in the video above.

Following the discussion of self-media, Li hosted a panel discussion with Joanna Chiu, a veteran China correspondent, dissident academic Qiao Mu, and Rebecca Davis, formerly the Beijing Correspondent for Agence France-Presse and now Variety’s chief correspondent in the city.

On WeChat in China, all your acounts are tied to your ID, the panelists explained. “It’s hard for people like activists to be like, ‘Oh my account got shut down, I’ll just make up a new name,’” Chiu observed. One popular satirical Chinese novelist, she said, lost his social media account and can no longer publish his work. “Now he makes money by selling fruit online,” she told the audience. “His Weibo is L’Orange or Melon Daddy or something, and people are supporting him, interestingly. They don’t need to buy fruit from him, but they do it because they’re think he’s a great writer who’s been quashed by a state. A lot of these writers are kind of trying to bide their time and do other artistic things and they still get a lot of support.”

Next, Xi moderated a panel between Iowa State University’s Jonathan Hassid, Jason Ng of Citizen Lab, Rongbin Han from University of Georgia, and New York University assistant professor Angela Wu. Han observed that tech platforms are complicit in censorship to a far greater degree than is generally examined, because they must enforce the rules dictated by the government if they want to continue making money in China. “They receive orders from the state and then carry out them and do self-censorship,” Han said. “They also moderate discussion and pick the kinds of the topics they want and topics they don’t want. So they play a huge role.”

Finally, Tow founding director Emily Bell hosted a discussion on Chinese authoritarian influence outside the country itself: Howard French, a professor at Columbia Journalism School and recent author of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power— about the nation’s influence around the world— Foreign Policy writer Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, and Matthew Schrader of German Marshall Fund’s Securing Democracy — also formerly editor in chief of China Brief.

Allen-Ebrahimian observed that dissident Chinese activists and intellectuals dating back to the Qin dynasty had left the country and founded newspapers and magazines to discuss radical ideas; in response, government-funded newspapers and magazines sympathetic to the established regime had emerged alongside them. This went on for years, Allen-Ebrahimian, said, then accelerated much more recently. “Starting in maybe the late ‘90s and early 2000’s and really picking up speed in the past five to ten years, there is a simultaneous attempt to control and reduce the amount of dissent that is published in small papers,” she told the audience.

“One very important way that that power is projected from Beijing to Singapore, to Canberra, to you know, Berlin and Washington, DC, is through the economy,” Allen-Ebrahimian said. The Chinese Communist Party and its instruments, she explained, sought out advertisers for little foreign newspapers read by diasporan Chinese that might publish something seditious. Their advertisers, she said, have tended to be “Chinese businesses that are catering to the local community, but a lot of these businesses either have financial ties back to China, family members back in China, or in some cases they’re actually literally mainland Chinese businesses.

“So the Party has figure out how to put pressure on those businesses. And they say, ‘We will harm your business — or we will or we will harm your family member — unless you pull your ad from this newspaper.’”



Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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Tow Center

Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism