Why Weibo and Chinese Celebrities Are Put into the Naughty Corner by China’s Cyberspace Administration

China’s central Internet regulator has summoned Sina Weibo to keep its information flows under control, punishing the platform by closing down its hot search lists and trending topic lists for the time to come. Sina Weibo has reacted with self-criticism and has exposed Chinese celebrities allegedly buying their way to the top.

There is an empty space on the right sidebar of the Sina Weibo platform this week. Where users of China’s biggest microblogging website usually see a ‘top trending’ list of the most popular topics or the most searched hashtags on the right sidebar, they now see an advertisement with nothing below it.

The change is the result of the reprimands Sina Weibo received this week from the Cyberspace Administration, China’s central Internet regulator, over the company’s “failure to censor illegal information posted by its users” and spreading of “vulgar content,” according to state media outlet Xinhua News.

 
Weibo Gets Punished
 

As punishment for Weibo’s ‘incapability’ to keep its information flows under control, the Cyberspace Administration issued a weeklong ban on the site’s “most searched hashtags” and “hottest topics” lists, until Saturday, February 3.

Another penalty was also announced: Sina Weibo’s hot lists cannot contain dozens of names and topics specified on an issued list for a period of at least three months.

On January 28, Weibo’s Administrator (@微博管理员) announced the recent measures and published a list of celebrity names that can no longer hit the ‘most popular’ charts on Weibo for the time to come.

One of the reasons mentioned for the ban is that these celebrities would allegedly buy their way to the top trending lists on Weibo. Weibo’s Administrator writes:

As the largest social media platform in China, we know that Weibo should have higher standards and greater responsibility. Based on our deep understanding for the notification of the concerning departments, we will carry out a thorough self-examination and self-correction, and will strictly carry out reforming measures to ensure we meet the goal. We will increase the cooperation with the formal media, and upgrade the Quality of Service of our content. With more technology and manpower, we will improve our management of illegal and harmful information, and maintain the order within the online informaton and preserve a good [online] environment.

In August 2016, Chinese authorities already announced that they would strictly guard against hyping private affairs and family conflicts of internet celebrities and the rich and famous. The announcement followed after the divorce of Chinese actor Wang Baoqian became one of the most discussed topics of all time on Weibo and Wechat.

 
Battling Flawed Algorithms?
 

On January 28, Weibo’s Administrator issued another statement that said that Weibo’s hot trending lists should be a reflection of the actual topics gaining most attention amongst netizens, but that companies and entertainment enterprises have found ways to influence these lists.

On Monday, Financial Times also reiterated that Chinese digital agencies are selling fake rankings on Weibo’s “hot topics” list.

Besides buying targeted marketing space on Weibo, which is actually clearly marked as third-party advertising, companies and celebrities can get a hashtag of choice into the top trending lists for as little as 8000 yuan (±$1260) by which digital agencies create fake Weibo accounts pushing a topic up the charts.

Other big social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are allegedly facing similar problems that falsely affect the top trending lists and platform algorithms.

Weibo administrators promised they would “effectively crackdown on the illicit competition that is harming the [online] community.”

 
Naughty Corner for Celebrities
 

Based on online data of the past month, Weibo administrators issued a list of 38 celebrity names, topics, and hashtags that were allegedly illegally bought up the trending charts by companies.

These names and topics will not be allowed to appear in the top trending lists for the months to come. Here are eight examples of names provided by Weibo.

1. One of these banned topics is the actress Li Xiaolu (李小璐), who recently made it to the top trending lists for her extramarital affair with hip-hop artist PG One.

Li Xiaolu is banned from the top trending lists on Weibo for the next 3 months.

2. Another name that won’t go ‘trending’ for the coming months is that of Chinese singer, songwriter, and actress Zhou Bichang aka Bibi Zhou (周笔畅). Bibi Zhou is also accused of paying money to get herself to the top trending lists on Weibo.

However, Bibi Zhou responded to the accusations on January 28, saying that “all the money I have I put into my music videos – I cannot afford [to spend money on] hot search lists.”

3. Chinese comedian Song Xiaobao (宋小宝)

The comedian Song Xiaobo, who stars in the TV show Joyful Comedians (欢乐喜剧人), will not be able to promote himself nor the show in the top lists on Weibo for the time to come.

Chinese comedian Song Xiaobao (宋小宝).

4. Taiwanese singer Lai Guanlin (赖冠霖)

Lai Guanlin, who is part of the popular South Korean boy band Wanna One, was reported to participate in upcoming TV programme “Idol Star Athletics Championships.” Further promotions for this appearance are unlikely to come through on the trending lists now.

Lai Guanlin (赖冠霖)

5. Chinese actress Zhang Xueying (张雪迎) aka Sophie Zhang

Actress Zhang Xueying reached the hot lists earlier this month for her pretty bald head look for her role in Go Away Mr. Tumor, a play that revolves around a woman who copes with cancer.

Zhang Xueying (张雪迎).

6. Wang Lele (王乐乐)

Internet celebrity Wang LeLe is a grassroots celebrity from live-streaming app Kuaishou who has attracted much (negative) attention over recent times for the rocky and drama-filled relationship with Yang Qingning (杨清柠).

7. ‘Brother Martial Arts’ (散打哥)

‘Brother Martial Arts’ aka Chen Weijie (陈伟杰) is an internet celebrity that emerged from the live-streaming platform Kuaishou.

Kuaishou star ‘Brother Martial Arts’.

8. Shawn Wei (魏千翔)

Shawn Wei (Wei Qianxiang) is a Chinese post-80s actor who is currently starring in the popular urban drama ‘My Youth Meets You’ (我的青春遇见你).

Shawn Wei

Although he is not a significantly big influential on Weibo, rumors of his company ‘buying his popularity’ on Weibo are long-standing.

 
Weibo Responses
 

The topic of the recent ban on Weibo hot lists itself became a much-discussed issue on Chinese social media. Many netizens dislike the fact that so many celebrities buy their way into the top trending lists, but also express their dissatisfaction with the list of names exposed by Sina Weibo: “There are so many people who frequently buy themselves into the hot lists, yet why are they not on this list?”, many said.

Others jumped in to defend their idols: “Why would Lai Guanlin be on this list?!” They say that people such as Lai Guanlin and Zhang Xueyin have been unjustly targeted by Chinese censors.

There are also people who wonder why they can no longer access the hot search and trending lists, because it is not so much the Sina Weibo company and the celebrities who are now punished, but the Weibo-loving netizens.

“How boring life is without the hot lists,” some say.

By Manya Koetse

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