Yan Shuang, a school student in Shenyang, Liaoning province, performs acrobatic tricks for viewers of his livestream on December 15.[Photo/Provided to China Daily]
The government is working to eradicate inappropriate content on the internet to ensure that the web remains free from obscenity and violent imagery, and to promote a healthy culture online.
Last month, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the national cyberspace regulator, ordered online news aggregator Toutiao and Kuaishou, a site that shares videos lasting about 60 seconds, to remove obscene and violent content and to close all accounts that uploaded such content.
The administration also closed about 5,000 livestreaming accounts hosted by minors－people younger than 18－and deleted about 300,000 video clips aired by livestreaming youngsters.
The move was aimed at closing loopholes in the operation of some online services, which have been criticized for attracting viewers without regard for rules or morality.
Recently, Kuaishou and Huoshan, a short-video application affiliated to Toutiao, have been widely criticized for allowing minors to spread “harmful” content.
Videos of pregnant teenagers or teenage mothers－usually unmarried and ages 13 to 18－appeared on the sites, describing their pregnancies or their lives as young mothers, and were forwarded to other sites in an effort to gain traffic and followers. That’s despite the fact that sexual activity with people ages 14 or younger is defined as rape in China, while the legal age for female marriage is 20. Moreover, being a single mother does not accord with traditional values.
Senior executives at both companies pledged to close all livestreaming accounts hosted by minors within five days, intensify regulation of content and alter the values used to set the algorithms that decide which content should be promoted to users.
By the end of last year, there were 579 million online video viewers and 422 million livestreaming viewers in the country, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.
Meanwhile, according to a recent report from iiMedia Research Group, a mobile internet consultancy, short videos are becoming increasingly popular, with 242 million viewers by the end of last year, a year-on-year rise of more than 58 percent.
Viewers’ reasons for watching the videos vary: more than 70 percent use them to kill time and relax, while approximately 42 percent said they also used them to obtain information, and about 21 percent were looking to make friends, according to the report.
“Cyberspace is not a lawless place because an online exchange is also a social relationship that must abide by the law and regulations,” said Sun Jin, head of the Cyberspace Governance Research Institute at Wuhan University.
“We appeal to people to adopt higher ethical standards, but they must adhere to the law. Those disseminating videos of adolescent mothers are suspected of abetting illegal conduct and promoting bad influences on society,” he said.
Moreover, users who upload “harmful” videos must assume joint responsibility with the sites that provide platforms that help to spread them, he added.
Yuan Gang, deputy CEO of livestreaming site Douyu, said there are rules governing the registration of minors on the site.
“We use facial identification methods for account registration and users must provide their ID cards. If they are under 18, they are not allowed to open an account. However, they are allowed to do so if they have written permission from their guardian. If the minors want to livestream, their guardian should aware of it,” he said.
In response to the authorities’ moves to straighten out irregularities in content, livestreaming and video sites have vowed to remove harmful content and increase manpower in content review.
Zhang Yiming, CEO of Toutiao, posted an apology the same night as one of its apps was ordered to close permanently after airing illegal content. He said he had “spent a sleepless night, feeling guilty and blaming himself” for failing to live up to the trust and support of the site’s users.
“We have focused on scale, but have not improved quality of content in a timely manner, and we have neglected our social responsibility to guide users toward positive information,” he said.
“We put a lot of energy and resources into growing our enterprise, but we did not take enough measures to regulate the platform, including effective governance of vulgar, violent, harmful content and false advertising.”
Zhang said the company overemphasized the role of technology without realizing that it must be guided by the correct values.
Shortly before Zhang’s apology, Su Hua, CEO of Kuaishou, expressed regret and apologized for the presence of illegal content－such as pornography and footage of violent acts－on his site.
He conceded that “the algorithm used by the platform contains certain values because humans are responsible for programming them.
“The defect in the algorithm is a defect in our values. We neglected the problem for a long time, but we will not shirk responsibility or evade supervision.”
Last month, Toutiao removed about 10,000 video clips and closed about 5,000 accounts, while Kuaishou removed about 310,000 video clips and closed 65,000 accounts.
The sites’ CEOs promised to improve editorial responsibility, with Toutiao saying it will increase the number of staff members in its review team from 6,000 to 10,000, while Kuaishou will raise numbers from 2,000 to 5,000.
The sites also promised to amend their algorithms to add “correct values”, avoid illegal and obscene content, and focus more on protecting minors.
“Technology itself is neutral, but the loophole stems from the wrong values behind the algorithms programmed by humans,” said Zhang Xiaoqiang, a professor of journalism at Chongqing University.
Technically, the term “algorithm” refers to a set of instructions followed in a fixed pattern. They are mainly used for solving math problems and making computer programs.
“The apps have their own algorithms, which decide the content they push to users based on data and their own methods of calculation,” Zhang Xiaoqiang said.
“Different video sites have different algorithms, and some are based on users’ personal habits. For example, on Douyin, a video site attached to Toutiao, viewers will be offered videos similar to those they have already viewed.
“Some have algorithms that create ‘hot’ items. For example, when a video reaches a certain number of views, the platform will push it to all users, send it to the front page or label it as hot,” he said.
“As a result, more people will view it, making it an extremely popular product. However, that popularity is man-made. That way we often encounter items that are seen as popular online, but we feel unaffected after watching them.”
He added that in an information-overloaded world, algorithms are essential tools. “They are like dippers that extract what we need from the sea of information and put it in front of us. It is easy for vulgar things to become popular because poorly educated netizens find them easy to understand,” he said.
“IT engineers at companies that pursue commercial profit often focus on technology and do not have any training in media ethics, meaning they may be led astray by video traffic that generates profits.”
Chen Rui, an associate professor at the Institute of Communication Psychology at Communication University of China, said, “The severe authority order last month was a blow to the industry. It signaled that service providers should be self-disciplined and improve their initiative in content review.
“These sites should improve their editorial processes and raise the qualifications for editors. The algorithm engineers need extra training as well, especially in terms of communication ethics.”
Zhang Xiaoqiang said sites must ensure that the people posting on them are aware of the regulations that govern online content.
“The sites should ensure that livestreamers and video providers understand what they are and are not allowed to do before they register,” he said.
“Service providers should not impose restrictions on registration because it is a good way for people, especially those from the grassroots, to gain recognition. Instead, the sites should adopt a credit system to regulate users’ behavior. The sites can take action against those with bad credit records. Service providers should pay more attention to posters whose videos attract a large volume of traffic or those selling goods or services while streaming, because they have greater influence.”
He added that in addition to guiding the industry with timely policies, the regulators should encourage the public to report harmful content, because the number of users is rising so quickly that the regulators are unable to keep track.
“A tip-off system could be led by social organizations, and the public could engage with it. The system could be more effective if people were rewarded for reporting harmful content,” he said.
Pi Yong, deputy head of the Cyberspace Governance Research Institute at Wuhan University, said the system has produced a three-layer relationship: government; internet service providers; and netizens.
“Without the middle layer, the government would be unable to manage cyberspace effectively. At the same time, service providers and netizens rely on each other, with the former gaining huge profits from the latter, so they must find a balance between commercial profit and social responsibility,” he said.
“Breaking the ecology of cyberspace will not be good for its operation in the long run.”