As China tightens controls on social media, some users seek refuge under radar

The new rules were just the latest blow for some users who have recently sought refuge elsewhere from China’s dominant social-media sites, saying the levels of censorship and harassment online have grown intolerable (Photo: Reuters)
The new rules were just the latest blow for some users who have recently sought refuge elsewhere from China’s dominant social-media sites, saying the levels of censorship and harassment online have grown intolerable (Photo: Reuters)


Many quit the country's dominant sites, citing new requirements to confirm their identities and display their IP locations

When one of China’s largest social-media sites began displaying her computer’s location on the network, Iris Lin decided it was time to get off the Twitter-like Weibo platform, saying she felt threatened by the loss of privacy as rising nationalism has led to harassment of internet users.

“This would only silence those who dared to speak out," said Ms. Lin, a 25-year-old who lives in China. “There’s no point trying to stay on Chinese social media anymore. It’s our motherland that’s expelling us."

Ms. Lin was part of a recent wave of Chinese-speaking users who have left China’s top social-media sites this spring and summer, partly as a result of new rules adopted in April by the country’s social-media platforms that require users to confirm their identities and display their Internet Protocol locations—which show the countries of foreign users and the provinces of those in mainland China.

The new rules were just the latest blow for some users who have recently sought refuge elsewhere from China’s dominant social-media sites, saying the levels of censorship and harassment online have grown intolerable.

Many are now trying to rebuild social networks on other sites and convince others to join them.

One site that has become popular lately among Chinese-speaking media users is Mastodon, a microblogging network based on open-source software. Mastodon saw an influx of more than 51,000 Chinese-speaking users between late April and mid-July, according to a bot that tracks Chinese users on the network. It is difficult to track usage across social-media sites globally because many companies don’t release international breakdowns of their users.

China’s dominant social-media sites such as Weibo and Douban, which has some features similar to Twitter and Reddit, have come under pressure from regulators to control content on their sites. The Cyberspace Administration of China said on Saturday that it had held talks with nearly 3,500 platforms and fined 283 of them for violating laws and regulations in the first six months of this year.

Regulators summoned Weibo representatives for allowing content deemed illegal and Douban representatives for the site’s “failure to fulfill the obligation to moderate content." Regulators levied fines on both companies. Last year, both companies were hit with fines totaling $3.45 million for what regulators considered to be lax content moderation.

The companies and China’s Cyberspace Administration didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

In April, Weibo said it started showing users’ IP locations in an effort to combat the spread of disinformation and protect the rights of users. Douban began requiring overseas users to verify their identity with either a Chinese phone number or their national identity card. The companies implemented the measures two months before China’s internet regulators passed a set of new rules that required the changes.

A 29-year-old student from China at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said he decided to quit Douban as a result of the new rules after using the site for 12 years. “If I had felt hopeless about censorship before, this time I was enraged," said the student. He and Ms. Lin have both turned to Mastodon.

The defections so far don’t seem to be eroding the overall number of users at Weibo and Douban. While both companies lost users in April and May—Weibo lost 27 million and Douban shed 278,000—their numbers have rebounded since then, according to Chinese internet data tracker Analysys. Weibo’s app had 476 million monthly active users in June, and Douban had 11.7 million, according to Analysys.

It couldn’t be determined whether Chinese-speaking social media users are fleeing to other mainstream sites. Twitter Inc. said it doesn’t release international user numbers. Meta Platforms Inc. and Reddit didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Myles Wang, a Macau-based university professor and once-influential voice on Douban among users who engage in discussions of social science and politics, said he chose Mastodon over Twitter partly because of fear that having influence on a mainstream foreign social platform could jeopardize his and his family’s safety. In recent years, more than 100 Chinese citizens have been arrested for political speech on Twitter, according to a tally documenting speech crimes in China based on publicly available information.

“This is why Mastodon is a refuge," Mr. Wang said.

Mastodon, which was created by a German software developer in 2016, offers Twitter-like features but allows users to join a variety of networks that are hosted on separate servers. More than 100 of these networks now host roughly 150,000 Chinese-speaking users.

Users who have left Chinese social-media sites say their decisions aren’t just about the ability to discuss politics. Many say they simply want to discuss their hobbies, cooking or their pets in an environment that they say feels more welcoming.

Liang Huan, a Chinese musician, founded one Mastodon network, Live Bar, as a Weibo alternative in 2020. When Weibo suspended his account in 2018, he lost connections to his two million followers. He described the emptiness he felt after realizing he could no longer share music, poems and silly selfies. “I felt like I was cut off from the entire world," said Mr. Liang.

As Mastodon has gained traction, it has also landed on the radar of Chinese internet authorities. Live Bar was blocked in China six months after its creation, Mr. Liang said. A number of other popular and medium-size sites were blocked in June, following a recent influx of Chinese users.

New-user growth has since slowed, primarily because users in China now need a virtual private network to access those blocked sites, administrators of several Mastodon sites said. But new sites keep popping up, playing a game of whack-a-mole with Chinese censors. And some sites soon created replicas that are accessible within China without a VPN.

Early Mastodon users said they are hopeful about rebuilding a vibrant community on the network. Leon Zhu, a 34-year-old software engineer who has been trying to bring his Weibo friends to Mastodon for two years, said he believes the continuing erosion to free expression in China will attract more Chinese internet users—even the apolitical ones—to Mastodon.

“I don’t consider myself a refugee on Mastodon," Mr. Zhu said. “I am a settler."


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