New Target for China’s Censors: Content Driven by Artificial Intelligence

While Facebook’s Zuckerberg is grilled in Washington, Beijing has been shutting down apps it says are problematic

An advertisement of Bytedance's newsfeed platform Toutiao in Beijing
An advertisement of Bytedance's newsfeed platform Toutiao in Beijing Photo: Reuters
BEIJING—A new battle over censorship is playing out in China, one that underscores the differences in how the world’s two largest economies are dealing with advances in technology that are upending the news business and social media.
In the U.S., disclosures over Facebook Inc.’s FB -0.49% privacy lapses led to Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg testifying on Capitol Hill. In China, concerns over a smartphone app trafficking in off-color jokes led to authorities shutting it down—and an abject apology from the site’s operator.

“This entire time we’ve been overemphasizing the value of technology without realizing that technology must be guided by socialist core values,” Zhang Yiming, founder of Beijing Bytedance Technology Co., said in a statement.
Bytedance Technology produces wildly popular news and entertainment apps driven by artificial intelligence. Authorities shut down its humor app, Neihan Duanzi, earlier this week on grounds that its content wasn’t in keeping with “a clean online audiovisual environment,” triggering thousands of comments on social media mourning its demise.

Also this week, four news apps were ordered temporarily removed from online stores—including Bytedance’s flagship product Jinri Toutiao, or “Today’s Headlines,” which claims 120 million daily active users.
The Bytedance apps are distinctive in China for relying almost entirely on algorithms to feed users content based on their personal preferences. That AI-driven approach helped the startup achieve a soaring $30 billion valuation, but has also sparked criticisms that it is flooding users with clickbait of questionable taste.
Moreover, Bytedance’s model presents a challenge to the Communist Party, which under President Xi Jinping has pushed hard to carve out more space in the public discourse for political messages from official propaganda outlets.
The Neihan Duanzi shutdown is the latest in a series of recent government actions targeting online platforms. Where in the past party censors have cracked down on sensitive political content, they are increasingly also punishing platforms that traffic in material they consider prurient, including scantily clad women and celebrity gossip.
Chinese officials have portrayed the increased censorship as an effective way of dealing with a problem that confronts all governments in the social-media age: How to keep fake news, filter bubbles, exploitation, abuse and dark phenomena of the internet from growing to the point where they threaten society.

In his testimony in Washington on Tuesday, Mr. Zuckerberg mirrored Mr. Zhang in apologizing for his platform’s failures to protect user privacy and fight misinformation, and promising to make sure his company’s tools are “used for good.”
He also warned that too much government regulation could stifle innovation, saying that artificial intelligence might help solve some of Facebook’s problems.
China’s government is keen on promoting commercial innovation, especially in advanced fields such as artificial intelligence, but not at the expense of compromising social values, said Zhu Wei, an expert in internet law and regulation at China University of Politics and Law.

“Facebook, Bytedance and the like are commercial enterprises. They need to make money and drive traffic,” Mr. Zhu said. “In China, the companies don’t have enough self-discipline, so the government is stepping in.”
In his apology, Mr. Zhang said the company would improve its algorithms and automatic filtering to be more socially responsible. He also acknowledged the limits of artificial intelligence in managing content, saying he planned to expand the company’s in-house team of human censors to 10,000 from 6,000 currently.

The two agencies leading the clampdown, the Cyberspace Administration of China and the State Administration of Radio and Television, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The week before the crackdown on news apps, authorities banned two live-streaming video apps, including one owned by Bytedance, from registering new users. The action followed accusations by the state broadcaster that the apps promoted teen pregnancy by allowing underage mothers to stream videos of themselves.
On Wednesday, another video platform owned by Bytedance, Douyin, turned off its live-streaming and commenting functions. 
The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.



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