WeChat account blockage raises hostility between traditional media and news aggregators

A picture illustration shows a WeChat app icon. Photo: Reuters

A recent war of words between a state-backed online media and Tencent on the technology giant's censorship rules has brought to the fore the feud between China's traditional news organizations and the emerging technology-driven news aggregators.

In an open letter to Ma Huateng, chairman and CEO of Tencent, Xu Shiping, president and editor-in-chief of eastday.com, a Shanghai-based, government-funded media company established in 2000, bombarded Tencent, the operator of WeChat, one of China's most popular social media platforms, for imperiously blocking the news website's official WeChat account named Breakfast News after it exposed the processing of dead and diseased ducks by Chinese street vendors in an article.

In the open letter titled "The ferocious authority of the penguin empire", Xu, who has worked as a media person for more than three decades, poked fun at Ma's "arrogant ambition" to become the administrator of China's journalism by misusing unbinding vetting and punishment rules, which Xu said would be detrimental to the country's public opinion ecology and the dignity of well-established Chinese news organizations.

"It is sad that a news outlet's destiny is at the hands of a third party (referring to Tencent)," said Xu, condemning Tencent for arbitrarily controlling the public data resources which should have been shared by all the people, depending on some local governments' support. "Tencent should be split under China's anti-trust law, (because) a monopolistic Tencent will pose a threat to the nation...We media people deserve our dignity no matter how much we earn. If the day comes when Chinese media become Tencent's puppet, what can we expect from the 'Chinese dream'?," said the editor-in-chief.

In a written statement released as a direct response to Xu's criticism, Tencent's WeChat security team said that the revelations in the duck processing-related article published on Breakfast News were identified as rumors that had been circulating for roughly two years. The WeChat security team said that the decision was made based on the fact that a number of Chinese authoritative media like people.com.cn operated by the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China (CPC), had denied similar rumors.

According to Tencent's statement, a professional third-party organization was invited to check the authenticity of the Breakfast News article after whistleblowers reported it to the WeChat platform. The WeChat security team also said that it has so far punished more than 1,000 public accounts guilty of spreading similar information about use of diseased ducks.

Over the years, the WeChat platform has been subject of criticism for abuse of its obscure censorship rules, which some industry observers say are being used to shut down uncensored public accounts, delete articles containing "sensitive" content and even guide the public opinion by establishing an autonomous news aggregator where all the registered members must bend to its rules. The move is intensified especially at a time of the rapid development of the digital and Internet technologies.

The spats between Xu and Tencent have stirred a public debate among Internet users who called on the technology giant to establish a transparent vetting mechanism including making public the names of the third-party censors and formulating specific rules to check the credibility of what whistleblowers report to the WeChat platform. At the same time, Internet users also pointed out that the blocking of Breakfast News sends a warning to the traditional news outlets running reports without facts and investigations.

Additionally, the blockage of public accounts on the WeChat platform could also be linked to Tencent's commercial considerations, as it has expanded its investment to various sectors.

Last year, WeChat suspended Uber's brand and service accounts due to allegations of "malicious sales practices" and "illegal collection of users' information". The cleanup campaign was partly regarded as a policy adopted by Tencent to protect its huge investment in Didi, the major domestic competitor of Uber in China's ride-hailing market. In 2016, Didi bought Uber's all assets in China.

Some industry experts attributed the moves of blocking rivals' public accounts on WeChat to the lack of legal recourse under China's anti-monopoly law and insufficient regulations that could strike a balance between the public and business interests on social media platforms and prevent misuse of power in order to maintain fairness and justice in the Internet world.

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