The hope for press freedom has long been an elusive aspiration in China, and the outlook has become increasingly dire under the tight rule of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Over the past year, Chinese authorities have stepped up the use of technology, and intensified efforts to snuff out access to news, opinions and information — even on social media platforms that are blocked in China, such as Twitter.
In the world’s second-largest economy, thousands of Internet sites are blocked, including Facebook, Gmail, Google, Instagram, and even Pinterest. News websites such as VOA English and Chinese, the BBC, The New York Times, Bloomberg and others have been forced outside of what is called the Great Firewall of China.
With the tightening of social media at home, Twitter has become a place for some to share information and read more about world events.
In recent months, however, individuals from scholars to rights advocates — even some with very few followers — have been forced to delete posts and in some cases close down their feeds permanently.
Rights advocates estimate that dozens have been called in since late last year and told to stop or face jail time. Some just for retweeting or even liking posts.
Focus on Twitter
The actions of authorities are part of the continuing tightening of space for freedom of expression that has taken place under Xi Jinping. It’s a tightening that gradually has trickled down from the blocking of overseas websites to pressure on the operators of domestic Internet sites to organizers of group chats on Chinese social media.
The focus on Twitter not only is affecting those looking for a place to vent but also as an avenue where Chinese citizens can access more than just state- and party-directed media reports. Additionally, it helps those outside China understand it better, as well.
“Some of the sources that are on Twitter are important sources of information for foreign journalists, and it is a place where people in China can not only voice their opinions but expose information, they post videos,” said Sarah Cook, a research analyst with the New York-based censorship watchdog Freedom House.
It is estimated that about 1% to 3% of Chinese internet users are on Twitter. That’s a small portion for a country that boasts an online population of more than 800 million people.
The growth of Chinese language media posts could be one reason for the tightening of controls on Twitter. That, perhaps, and the fact that 2019 is a year of important and sensitive anniversaries, from the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China to the 30th anniversary of the communist party’s bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The New York Times, BBC and others have Chinese language Twitter accounts with more than a million followers. VOA’s Chinese language news site has more than 780,000. The English version of state-run Xinhua News Agency has more than 12 million followers, and its Chinese language feed, more than a million.
“They are using freedom of information and freedom of expression and those channels that we have globally to the best of their advantage while at the same time ensuring that they maintain strictly adhere to Communist Party whims,” said William Nee, a China researcher with Amnesty International.
Before Xi began his rise to power in late 2012, analysts and activists say the government’s approach was much different. Under former leader Hu Jintao, there was more space for civil society and the sharing of information online through social media.
Since then, Xi has taken a much more sophisticated and technologically savvy approach, they note.
“Xi Jinping has clearly consolidated his power and because of that there is less space for freedom of the press,” said Zhou Shuguang, a prominent citizen journalist, and blogger who left China before Xi came to power. His wife is from Taiwan and now he lives on the fiercely democratic island.
“In China, there are fewer and fewer investigative journalists, citizens’ space for freedom of speech is being squeezed and more are being arrested for what they have said,” he said.
In addition to tightening controls, technology is being used to advance China’s domestic and global propaganda objectives, as well as its vision for the media.
Late last year, Xinhua News Agency and tech firm Sogou showcased the world’s first robotic news anchor, which uses AI to mimic the voice, lip movements and expressions of a news presenter. The AI anchor was touted as being able to work 24-hours a day and boost efficiency.
But more than robotlike journalists, the combination of AI and the Chinese government’s propaganda machine is something more worrisome, said Freedom House’s Sarah Cook.
“Particularly with regards to the idea of changing certain words in the story or in the headline for different users to make it more attractive for someone like these news aggregator apps that are run on AI,” Cook said.
The ability to tailor stories and create different versions that can reach more viewers who engage with it based on the algorithms of the apps they are using makes for a very powerful propaganda tool, she added.
“I am not sure or how effective having an AI anchor is … but I think there are some real and more insidious uses of AI when you talk about it being combined with an entity like Xinhua News Agency,” Cook said.