China's news app makes staff overhaul amid strict censorship rules

The headquarters of Beijing Bytedance Technology, the parent company of the Today's Headlines app, in Beijing Photo: Bloomberg

A Chinese news app, which is known for its personalized algorithm-based news feeds, is employing thousands of content reviewers for its self-censorship team, as the authorities are tightening grip on press.

Today's Headlines, which embarks on a transformation to an innovation-driven social media platform from a pure news aggregator, has run job advertisements for some 2,000 editors who are responsible for examining whether the contents published on the platform comply with the government's rules and regulations on information.

The job candidates are required to hold undergraduate degrees or above, have strong enthusiasm for journalism, care about current affairs and have good political sensitivity and judgement, with the members of the Communist Party being given priority.

The recruitment spree came just days after the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country's top Internet regulator, ordered Today's Headlines to stop distributing inappropriate and vulgar information from more than 1,000 of its most popular news providers in a warning which asked for a 24-hour suspension.

In a notice, the Cyberspace Administration chewed out Today's Headlines for illegally spreading news contents without obtaining qualifications to do so from the authorities, expressing concerns over the problem of clickbait on the app.

Following the watchdog's directive, Today's Headlines shut down its section for social news and replaced it with one titled "new era", which has become one of the default sections on the platform. An unnamed source from the news app later explained to the Paper, a leading news organization in China, that the replacement of the society section was for "better promoting the main theme, disseminating the spirit of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and reporting on the building of the new era". It also said that the news app was removing independent media accounts publishing low-quality contents and had blocked more than 1,000 channels.

The shutdown of the independent media accounts might well cast a shadow on an ambitious blueprint that Today's Headlines unveiled last month to support the development of 1,000 media accounts which are registered on the app and own a million followers separately, as part of efforts to make its contents sellable. Last year, the news app invested 1 billion yuan in an initiative aimed at encouraging the creators to produce more original short videos, which helped take the average daily views of short videos on its platform to over 10 billion.

However, Today's Headlines has been repeatedly under fire for distributing fake and inappropriate news over the past several years. In October 2016, the news app was strongly criticized for reposting a fake story written by a literally self-owned media account. The story falsely claimed that Syria's government and the anti-government forces reached an agreement to cease fire for 48 hours in celebration of their team's surprise victory away to China in the third game of the final round of the 2018 World Cup Asia Zone qualifiers on October 6.

In the recent years, Beijing has ramped up its efforts to control flow of information on the Internet, including blocking the verified accounts of "opinion leaders" on Sina Weibo, the popular Twitter-like social media platform in the country, and removing off shelves the foreign-made teleplays which it deemed as "inappropriate" and "sensitive" from the video streaming service platforms. The tightened scrutiny over online contents is criticized by Western media for undermining the freedom of press, although the Chinese government denies it. And in June 2016, China went a step further to legalize its cyberspace crackdown by enacting its Cybersecurity Law, which authorizes the government explicit power to monitor, investigate and punish the illegal activities on the Internet.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that "cyberspace is the spiritual homeland for hundreds of millions of people", describing it as a place necessarily regulated by laws, where the activities of spreading nonsense news must be banned.

A reversal from algorithm-based news feeds

The inclusion of the new 2,000 content reviewers into the self-censorship team, which Today's Headlines said to expand to 10,000 people as planned, is considered as a breakaway from the news app's dependence on the algorithm-based news recommendation system, which provides the target readers with what they want based on their interests.

Over the past five years, Today's Headlines has accumulated a great number of data about the interaction between the content creators and readers through algorithm. The recommendation algorithm is largely regarded as a trump card for Today's Headlines to attract fans, and that could be one of the reasons why the news app can enlarge its market capitalization to $22 billion especially in the face of the strong competition from the traditional news organizations and risks of being bought by the powerful technology giants such as Baidu and Tencent, which are spending large resources to develop artificial intelligence-based algorithms.

Currently, Today's Headlines has grown as one of the most popular content platforms in China, where an average of 500,000 pieces of contents were shared every day in October last year.

However, in the wave of criticism over Today's Headlines' distribution of vulgar news, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, belittled the news app's much-boasted algorithm-based news feeds mechanism in an article, in which the newspaper said that delivering the rubbish news to the mobile phones of people under the cloak of algorithm and journalism was a trick designed by the Internet merchant (referring to Today's Headlines) to gain the preference of advertisers.

"The information delivered through algorithm is so unreliable, and beats the bottom lines very much. The great number of Internet users especially the parents of children have felt this, and got hurt," the newspaper said.

Shen Yang, a professor of journalism at Tsinghua University, said that recommendation algorithm itself presents no value, but it will have a significant impact on people's values when the technology is applied in the social activities. The key to prevent the appearance of vulgar information on the Internet lies in how the news service providers control the sources of information, the professor stressed.

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