China’s Propaganda Ministries Dislike the Algorithmic Feed, Possibly Even More Than You Do

China’s Propaganda Ministries Dislike the Algorithmic Feed, Possibly Even More Than You Do
A man stands in front of a large screen showing analytics data about the Chinese web at an internet fair in Beijing in April 2021; used here as stock photo. (Photo: Ng Han Guan, AP)

China’s state propaganda institutions are urging companies like ByteDance, the owner of music app TikTok/Douyin, and Tencent Holdings, owner of messaging app WeChat and numerous streaming platforms, to limit the role of algorithms in content promotion, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday.

Algorithms are basically the secret sauce that fuels modern social networks and streaming platforms, using proprietary and often extremely complicated pieces of code to optimise what content appears next on any given user’s feed. They’re good at both maximizing audience size and cheaply filling homepages with limited need for manual editorial curation. According to the SCMP, the Central Propaganda Department of the Communist Party, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the State Administration of Radio and Television, and the two major state-backed associations for artists and authors are now urging Chinese tech firms to get a better handle on “culture and art reviews,” which could translate into both increased direct control of what Chinese users see when they log on and compliance costs for their operations.

It’s easy to see why China is interested in algorithms, as their use ups the odds something that censors would prefer the public doesn’t see goes viral (and as we’ve seen time and time again in the U.S., algorithms can be both a pipeline for extreme political ideas and an excuse for companies to distance themselves from what happens on their platforms). According to the SCMP, it would also prefer that citizens spend time watching content that censors believe boosts loyalty to the state over supposedly frivolous and vulgar celebrity news and gossip, which is of course as popular in China as anywhere else. The paper wrote that a separate report by state-owned media organ Xinhua on Tuesday claimed the Cyberspace Administration of China had recently removed 150,000 pieces of content and penalised 4,000 accounts linked to celebrity fandom.

The full policy has yet to be released. But the SCMP wrote that Xinhua announced that the propaganda ministries and artist/author associations set out preliminary guidelines in which all content creators and distributors in China must “adhere to the correct direction, strengthen Marxist literary theory and criticism, and pay attention to the social effects of literary criticism … and not to contribute to the spread of low, vulgar and pandering content or quasi-entertainment content.”

The preliminary version of the guidelines also stated that the new rules will aid firms to “improve the standards of literary and art criticism” and “put social value first,” according to the SCMP. The propaganda organs pledged they will work with media companies to produce more “micro reviews, short reviews, snap reviews and all-media reviews,” as well as work to “strengthen research and guidance of cyberspace algorithms, impose comprehensive governance of cyberspace algorithm recommendations, and not provide channels for dissemination of erroneous content.”

In related moves, the Chinese government has been strengthening antitrust regulation and cracking down on some of the biggest players in its tech sector — for much the same reasons that U.S. and European regulators have become increasingly sceptical of their own dominant internet firms, Tech Buzz China’s Rui Ma told the Washington Post.

These include the formation of a so-called “gig economy” in which poorly paid contractors with few labour protections increasingly perform work formerly done by regular employees, concerns about foreign cyber penetration of private networks, and consumer protection. Chinese regulators are also concerned about monopolistic and anti-competitive behaviour by large firms that have benefited from the network effect (essentially, the way by which very large platforms attract even more users by virtue of everyone already being on them).

Chinese authorities don’t want to crush their tech sector but are pivoting from competing with foreign firms in terms of sheer scale and size to emphasising state priorities, Rui told the Post.

“The headlines are virtually the same as what I read in the U.S.,” Rui told the Post. “… China wants to be world-leading in regulations. They don’t just want to follow the E.U. and the U.S.”