Targeted measures underway to clean up the digital stratosphere
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2022-04-02  ·   Source: NO.14 APRIL 7, 2022

It was a movie-worthy drama that played out in real life. On the night of March 15, online celebrity Wuwu made her usual appearance on Douyin, China's version of TikTok. As a live-streamer with a loyal following, she was singing and chatting with her followers, mostly men, to get more "tips," as she did almost every day.

At that very same moment, a live broadcast on China Central Television (CCTV) exposed Wuwu as a prime example of live-streamers tricking their followers into "tipping" them. The annual program, specially produced in light of World Consumer Rights Day on March 15, sets out to blow the lid off various consumer traps.

As the CCTV program went on to reveal, in a bid to maintain more intimate connections with her followers, Wuwu had personally contacted them on WeChat, one of China's most extensive multi-purpose social platforms. Yet conversing with the followers every day were, in fact, her team members—rather than herself. The crafty hands, all men, imitated Wuwu's tone with only one goal in mind—getting the followers to spend more money on her live-streams.

Wuwu and her team were unaware that their misconduct had been uncovered. When over 1,000 viewers checked out her Douyin account and informed her about the CCTV program, Wuwu was shocked and had no clue as to what was happening. Shortly after, her live-streaming days came to an abrupt end—courtesy of a ban by Douyin.

An online cleansing

The tips that make online hosts and their teams go to these great, yet illegal, lengths are the "virtual gifts" with prices ranging from under 100 yuan ($15) to almost 20,000 yuan ($3,150) during a live-streaming session. The gift money then will be split among the platform, the live-streaming team and its hosts.

"The financial stakes are so high that they have wreaked havoc in the live-streaming industry," Li Jun, a deputy to the 13th National People's Congress (NPC) from Sichuan Province, told Beijing Review. "The hosts and their teams spared almost no efforts to get more tips from their followers. They adopted coarse methods, like wearing less, to lure new eyes, polluting the social environment."

One of his suggestions submitted to the NPC session this year is in regards to the regulation of such live-streaming chaos.

Wuwu's Douyin account was suspended right after the CCTV broadcast. At a press conference on March 17, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced it would continue its Operation Qinglang campaign, originally launched in 2021, with a series of measures targeting online disorder to create a better digital ecosystem in China. One major goal is to strengthen the regulation of live-stream gifting and punish those live-streamers who trick their viewers into tipping.

"The timing is perfect," Li said, applauding the government's response. "Apart from the tipping turmoil, live-streamers have a few other tricks up their sleeves to rev up sales, like creating fake viewer counts and manipulating sales data to attract more consumers. The new government measures also take these into account."

Service platform Black Cat revealed last year they had received over 70,000 live-streaming-related complaints from consumers, involving selling counterfeits and exaggerating product functions, making them the most common among all consumer complaints.

In 2021, the CAC punished 1.34 billion accounts and banned over 7,200 live-streamers. Over 2,160 related mobile apps were removed from app stores.

Toughened up

Another suggestion Li submitted this year regarded the creation of a friendlier and healthier online environment, especially for minors. This proposal, too, has been echoed in this year's campaign, which specifies the online platforms should strengthen supervision over content for adolescents.

"Take e-gaming, for example. The government issued a policy last August strictly limiting e-gaming time for minors, but some kids still sneakily use their parents', or even grandparents', ID numbers to log in," Li said. "This is an especially serious problem in the rural areas, where many parents have gone off to the cities to make a better living, leaving the kids in their grandparents' care. It's common to see rural kids holding a smartphone all day long—when they're not in school."

He suggested using technologies like facial recognition to tighten supervision of minors.

Figures from the CAC indicate that the number of underage online users in China reached 183 million in 2020, with the penetration rate reaching 94.9 percent. In the draft regulations on minor protection, issued by the CAC on March 14 for public opinion solicitation, items on network information regulation, personal information protection and prevention of Internet addiction among minors have all been included.

Other measures in the Operation Qinglang campaign include strictly preventing entertainers who have broken the law or transgressed social morality from making a comeback, stepping up efforts to battle online rumors and bullying as well as intensifying regulations on the use of computer algorithms.

Zhao Zhanling, a legal adviser for the Internet Society of China, called for the joint supervision by more departments, including those responsible for market regulation, medical care and child protection, and more comprehensive inspections.

"It is hard for regulators to identify irregularities in specific sectors," Zhang added. "More authorities need to join the supervisory ranks to get the industry better regulated and allow it to develop in a healthy manner."

(Print Edition Title: Borderless, Not Lawless)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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