Saturday, September 23, 2023

WeChat wants people to use its video platform. They did, too, for digital protests.

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According to someone familiar with the matter, the original video uploaded by the creator was viewed 5 million times before it was removed. Given how many times it was re-uploaded, the video could have easily reached millions of Chinese that night. But every single version, as well as sympathetic stories commenting on the video, was censored almost immediately.

The intensity of the censorship that took place so late at night in China was surprising, says Eric Liu, a former internet censor in China who now partners with US-based outlet China Digital Times. “The speed at which posts are censored, within seconds [of publishing], made it really unusual for me. It requires ordering a lot [censorship] employees to work overtime.”

Show two screenshots leaked orders from local governments to remove content relevant to the video also appeared online. Though worded differently, the orders asked both tech companies to clean up videos, screenshots or derivative content “without exceptions.” It’s difficult to confirm the authenticity of the screenshots, but Liu, who once worked in China’s censorship machine, said the terminology used suggests the screenshots are likely legit.

History repeats itself… with a WeChat twist

This isn’t the first time during the pandemic that censorship online has sparked a heated popular protest. It happened on the night that Chinese whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang died and again when a story about another Chinese doctor Ai Fen – hailed as “The Whistle-Giver” –was severely censored

What’s different this time around is that the new video has largely been distributed through WeChat channels, a fledgling video-sharing product that Tencent has struggled to build an audience for. Channels allow a user to post videos of up to an hour in length, which can then be shared with friends as well as distributed to the public through WeChat’s algorithms.

Channels was released in January 2020 in response to the explosive popularity of TikTok’s domestic version Douyin. In the two years since, Tencent has used every tool to promote channels, including offering monetary incentives to creators, livestreaming concerts from A-list celebrities, and bundling the product with WeChat, an app that has been used by more than a billion people. is used.

Still, the popularity of Channels grew slowly. Although it now has almost as many users as Douyin, the average time a user spends on channels on a daily basis is 35 minutes, a third of Douyins 107 minutes

But on the night of April 22, WeChat Channels took center stage.

Ironically, it was Tencent’s product decisions that made it easier for Channels to become a tool of protest. To attract new users, WeChat has made it extremely easy for users to register a Channels account (while it can take days to get approved to register a traditional publishing account on WeChat). This allowed many people to open public accounts and instantly upload hundreds of versions of the video.

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