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Government moves to clean up internet content

By Zhang Yi in Beijing and Liu Kun in Wuhan | China Daily | Updated: 2018-05-03 08:12

"Wrong' values

"Technology itself is neutral, but the loophole stems from the wrong values behind the algorithms programmed by humans," said Zhang Xiaoqiang, a professor of journalism at Chongqing University.

Technically, the term "algorithm" refers to a set of instructions followed in a fixed pattern. They are mainly used for solving math problems and making computer programs.

"The apps have their own algorithms, which decide the content they push to users based on data and their own methods of calculation," Zhang Xiaoqiang said.

"Different video sites have different algorithms, and some are based on users' personal habits. For example, on Douyin, a video site attached to Toutiao, viewers will be offered videos similar to those they have already viewed.

"Some have algorithms that create 'hot' items. For example, when a video reaches a certain number of views, the platform will push it to all users, send it to the front page or label it as hot," he said.

"As a result, more people will view it, making it an extremely popular product. However, that popularity is man-made. That way we often encounter items that are seen as popular online, but we feel unaffected after watching them."

He added that in an information-overloaded world, algorithms are essential tools. "They are like dippers that extract what we need from the sea of information and put it in front of us. It is easy for vulgar things to become popular because poorly educated netizens find them easy to understand," he said.

"IT engineers at companies that pursue commercial profit often focus on technology and do not have any training in media ethics, meaning they may be led astray by video traffic that generates profits."


Chen Rui, an associate professor at the Institute of Communication Psychology at Communication University of China, said, "The severe authority order last month was a blow to the industry. It signaled that service providers should be self-disciplined and improve their initiative in content review.

"These sites should improve their editorial processes and raise the qualifications for editors. The algorithm engineers need extra training as well, especially in terms of communication ethics."

Zhang Xiaoqiang said sites must ensure that the people posting on them are aware of the regulations that govern online content.

"The sites should ensure that livestreamers and video providers understand what they are and are not allowed to do before they register," he said.

"Service providers should not impose restrictions on registration because it is a good way for people, especially those from the grassroots, to gain recognition. Instead, the sites should adopt a credit system to regulate users' behavior. The sites can take action against those with bad credit records. Service providers should pay more attention to posters whose videos attract a large volume of traffic or those selling goods or services while streaming, because they have greater influence."

He added that in addition to guiding the industry with timely policies, the regulators should encourage the public to report harmful content, because the number of users is rising so quickly that the regulators are unable to keep track.

"A tip-off system could be led by social organizations, and the public could engage with it. The system could be more effective if people were rewarded for reporting harmful content," he said.

Pi Yong, deputy head of the Cyberspace Governance Research Institute at Wuhan University, said the system has produced a three-layer relationship: government; internet service providers; and netizens.

"Without the middle layer, the government would be unable to manage cyberspace effectively. At the same time, service providers and netizens rely on each other, with the former gaining huge profits from the latter, so they must find a balance between commercial profit and social responsibility," he said.

"Breaking the ecology of cyberspace will not be good for its operation in the long run."

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