SHANGHAI — Harper’s Bazaar, as well as other prominent entertainment media in China, had their official WeChat accounts shut down last week as new content rules came into force.
The shutdowns stem from a new cybersecurity law that took effect June 1, which is mainly about regulating privacy, but includes a ban on gossip about the personal lives of celebrities.
Major Chinese technology firms, including Tencent (the owner of WeChat), Baidu, Sina and Netease met with the Beijing Cyberspace Administration on June 7, where they were reportedly warned about allowing content that doesn’t “proactively promote socialist core values.” The offending accounts were taken down a day later.
“The regulation stipulates that individuals and organizations cannot damage people’s reputation, privacy and intellectual property on the Internet,” said Manli Huo, social media manager at the Shanghai-based Altima Agency, which operates official WeChat accounts for international brands and media outlets, including WWD.
“[Media accounts are] safe as long as they cover factual information and don’t touch celebrities’ personal lives.”
The vague wording of the regulation and the way in which accounts have been deleted without information about how, specifically, they have contravened regulations are the norm in China, according to Alexis Bonhomme, cofounder of Curiosity China, a digital activation agency headquartered in Beijing.
“Usually when the government brings in a new rule, it’s always a bit blurry, so you don’t know exactly what you are supposed to do or not. If you give a clear guideline, people will always, always play on the edge. It’s human behavior for people to be more conservative if they don’t know where the line is,” he explained.
“It’s a little bit surprising that they shut down all these accounts. They are gossip-based accounts, publishing photos of people before they were famous and publishing stories about celebrity lifestyles that were not very respectful.”
All of the official accounts that have been taken off-line by WeChat, including Harper’s Bazaar’s, were focused on celebrity and entertainment news.
At the time of writing, Harper’s Bazaar China’s official Sina Weibo account — Sina Weibo is China’s most prominent Twitter-like microblogging platform — was still operating. Its content is more focused on fashion and events than the magazine’s WeChat channel.
Bonhomme expects this crackdown to be part of a reasonably short-lived morality campaign, common in China’s online world.
“These shutdowns look serious on paper, but people will cool down about it. I don’t think it will have huge consequences. It’s just a sword of Damocles hanging over people’s heads.”
Data released last month by Tencent showed WeChat boasted 889 million monthly active users in the fourth quarter of 2016, with the average user on the site for 66 minutes every day. There are now 10 million official accounts on the platform.
In response to questions about censorship, WeChat’s parent company Tencent did not directly answer questions about why these accounts were shut down but did say in a statement: “Tencent respects and complies to local laws and regulations in countries we operate in to provide a safe and reliable communications ecosystem for our users. WeChat has and will always adhere to Tencent’s core mission to create value for our users by providing high-quality, secure user experiences.”