China's Sina Weibo overhauls hot searches list amid government crackdown

Weibo's logo Photo: Bloomberg

China's well-known social media platform Sina Weibo has never been able to escape government's control since 2012 when a new leadership led by Xi Jinping came into power, which appears to have tightened crackdown on online discourse.

Five years ago, Sina Weibo followed the government's directive to purge the so-called opinion leaders on the platform, whose online speeches were considered "politically sensitive" and "misleading the public". That crackdown turned Sina Weibo, which was once a relatively open microblogging platform where Internet users were in a large part allowed to comment on social and political topics, into a "silent" online community.

When it entered 2018, the regulators pointed the spearhead to Sina Weibo's hot searches list, a ranking list supposed to represent the most frequent searches of the social media platform's 360 million monthly active users.

Under the command of the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country's top cyberspace watchdog, Beijing's Internet regulator summoned the executives of Sina Weibo in late-January, requiring them to overhaul the hot searches list within a week, accusing the platform of "spreading misleading hype" and "vulgar content".

In a statement as a response, Sina Weibo pledged to rectify the hot searches list, and banned dozens of Chinese celebrities including Wang Sicong, the son of billionaire Dalian Wanda Group Chairman Wang Jianlin, and Zhou Bichang, a Chinese pop singer, from appearing on the ranking list in the following three months. A Sina Weibo spokesperson said that the company would increase investment on labor and technology to improve the management of illegal and harmful content.

After a one-week closedown, Sina Weibo relaunched the improved hot searches list on Saturday, with a newly added feature called "New Era", which is designed to put emphasis on spreading the "positive energy". "New Era" has become a catchphrase in China since Xi put forward the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era at last year's 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which is believed to be included into the country's constitution.

The hot searches list overhaul is similar to that of news app Today's Headlines earlier this year. In January, the algorithm-based news aggregator shut down its section for social news and replaced it with one titled "New Era", which has become one of the default sections on the news app, after the Cyberspace Administration of China asked for removal of inappropriate and vulgar information from the news platform. At the time, Today's Headlines said that the replacement of the social section was for "better promoting the main theme, disseminating the spirit of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and reporting on the building of the new era".

One day before the relaunch of the hot searches list, the Cyberspace Administration of China unveiled a regulation for the management of information and services provided by the microblogging platforms in an effort to purify the online environment. The regulation stipulates that the microblogging service providers should improve the management mechanisms and adopt technologies that can prevent fake information from appearing on their platforms. The microblogging service providers should be responsible for the credibility of the information they provide and should play a role in promoting the core value of socialism and advanced culture, according to the regulation, which will take effect on March 20.

A blow to fake news makers

The hot searches list, which is initially designed to keep the users informed of the hottest real-time news, has degenerated as a tool that some celebrities and online influencers use to earn profits or eliminate negative effects.

There are reports exposing the manipulation of search rankings by some entertainers to push unfavorable stories about them further down the hot searches list. In addition, some digital companies reportedly sell fake rankings on Sina Weibo's hot topics list, another famous ranking list on the microblogging platform.

In a statement, Sina Weibo admitted that the desire of some companies and figures in the entertainment industry to gain public attention had given rise to the creation of a black industry, saying that it would upgrade the technology to guarantee the credibility of information on the hot searches and hot topics lists.

Recently, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, ran an article, in which it bombarded the black industry which "misuses hot searches to earn money" as "undermining the quality of content on the Internet platforms". The article also accused some film and restaurant recommendation apps of manipulating the rankings. "The interaction that should have been beneficial will become a vicious circle when the users do not make real evaluation and the platforms are unable to reflect the users' real opinions," the article said.

"I hope that the hot searches list could have a black list function, which can autonomously ban the entertainers entering the black list from appearing on the hot searches list," a Sina Weibo user wrote.


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