China

Weibo is 'treating the incels like the royal family'

China's nationalist "Red Vs" are descending on feminist activists, who say the Nasdaq-listed company is helping the haters.

Weibo is 'treating the incels like the royal family'

Weibo is listed on Nasdaq at a market capitalization of about $11.2 billion.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Prominent feminist activist Xiao Meili had never expected to find herself in the center of a nationalist storm. For the past 10 years, she has focused on fighting for one thing: the rights of Chinese women. But over the past two weeks, she's become known nationwide as "a Han traitor," "a supporter of the independence of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang," "a member of Falun Gong" and "a CIA agent." None of the accusations are true, but that hasn't stopped Weibo, the social media platform she long used for her activism, from closing her account, along with those of 10 other feminist activists. The crackdown marks yet another setback for China's determined yet beleaguered online feminist movement.

It all apparently started with a viral Weibo post that had nothing to do with issues dear to China's nationalists. On March 29, Xiao posted a video of her confronting a man who refused to stop smoking at a restaurant. The next day, a prominent nationalist Weibo influencer with the handle @ziwuxiashi (子午侠士) — roughly translated as "Knight of the South and the North" — started a smear campaign against her. He called Xiao a "female boxer" (女拳), a derogatory term referring to feminists. And he posted a 2014 photo of Xiao holding a slogan that read, "Hold onto freedom in the storm. Pray for Hong Kong," suggesting support for Hong Kong independence, a cardinal sin on Chinese social media.

The user @ziwuxiashi, who has amassed a large following after years of instigating online bullying against "traitors," is an archetypal example of a "Red V," or key nationalist influencer (爱国营销号). The Shaanxi province Cyberspace Administration Office has publicly pledged to work with @ziwuxiashi in order to propagate the Party line. In a 2016 profile of him published by the Communist Youth League, the self-proclaimed former member of the military expressed the need to instill "a sense of urgency and mission around cyber ideological struggles" into China's youth.

Other prominent nationalist accounts, including @上帝之鹰, meaning "God's Eagle," quickly piled on. Their followers rushed to threaten Xiao through comments and private messages, while also (somewhat hypocritically) reporting her to Weibo in an effort to "kill" her account — a favored tactic among nationalist users. On the morning of March 31, just after Xiao had spent an hour deleting vicious comments, she learned that Weibo had closed her account of 10 years.

Nationalist influencers didn't stop there. In the week that followed, they doxxed and trolled 10 other prominent feminist activists in a similar fashion, cobbling together what they felt was evidence of the women's disloyalty to China and their intent to subvert the state. One activist's Twitter retweet about disappeared Uyghur scholars was taken as evidence of spreading "rumors that smear China." In short order, Weibo, which is listed on Nasdaq at a market capitalization of about $11.2 billion, deleted each woman's account; they say they were not given a reason. It was only after Liang Xiaowen sued Weibo for violating China's Civil Code and damaging her reputation that the company responded that her account had been shuttered for posting "illegal and harmful information." Meanwhile, the accounts of the Red Vs who attacked her remain online.

"The platform is the biggest enabler," Xiao told Protocol, referring to Weibo, which she said "treats the incels as if they are the royal family," given that most nationalist harassers are men. Meanwhile, Weibo "allows women to have a presence on the platform because we attract attacks and [therefore] contribute clicks." Weibo didn't respond to a Protocol request for comment.

The crackdown on feminists has since spread onto other platforms. Users of the popular social platform Douban reported that as of April 13, it had shut down the accounts of over a dozen feminist groups whose members had advocated for singlehood without children. (They are not connected with the Weibo activists.) One reason Douban gave: The content contained "extremism and radical political and ideological views." On April 14, China's central bank published a working paper that suggests Beijing "fully liberalize and encourage childbirth," assigning women the responsibility of solving a national economic problem as a demographics crisis looms. The confluence of these events has alarmed feminist organizers, who worry that they signal another crackdown on gender discourse.

Nationalism gets lucrative

Chinese social media has become a highly politicized public square that increasingly reduces dialogues to a single dichotomy: that which is "patriotic" versus that which is "anti-China." It's opened the way for a tremendous amount of cyberbullying in the name of patriotism, which top nationalist accounts can then spin into lucrative business opportunities.

It's also profitable for the platforms: Nationalism is one of the most traffic-generating topics on social media, engineered by increasingly pervasive censorship. The state helps in another way: Many of the Red Vs have been co-opted by cybersecurity authorities. For example, internet regulators will invite them to workshops to discuss propaganda strategies, or amplify their voices on government websites. Red Vs routinely fan nationalistic sentiment by effectively purging from social media individuals who they deem to have deviated from "patriotic" values. The attacks against selected targets, often women, virtually guarantee clicks, and thus ad revenue, for both the Red Vs and platforms like Weibo. The result is digital misogyny on steroids.

Liu Lipeng, a former Chinese internet censor and a content quality manager at a Chinese tech company, told Protocol that before 2013, voices critical of the Chinese government, or "public intellectuals," dominated Weibo discourse. But since ruler Xi Jinping came to power, Liu said, Red Vs have gradually replaced the intellectuals as the loudest voice. "Profitability is first and foremost priority for [Weibo], and whether and how it can make money is determined by the parameters set by cyberspace authorities," said Liu, who currently works at China Digital Times, an independent publication tracking censorship in China. "Censorship breeds and nurtures those nationalist influencers."

A shrinking space for gender discourse

Since 2015, when five feminist activists, known internationally as the Feminist Five, were detained for planning to hand out stickers about sexual harassment at transportation hubs in major cities, authorities in China have sought to quash a nimble and vibrant feminist movement. Social media remains a critical space for feminist activism, but it's shrinking. Feminist organizer and strategist Lü Pin told Protocol that over the past six years, Weibo has deleted at least 44 individual and group feminist accounts. After enduring repeated crackdowns, the movement is now decentralized, but not dead. Instead, over the past six years, feminism has gone from a fringe idea to a mainstream topic, with gender becoming one of the most discussed topics on social media.

The activists are concerned the current wave of attacks is part of a coordinated, possibly state-directed action to wipe out gender discourse on Weibo, although they can't be certain. Fear permeates the feminist community, and no one knows when the attacks will end. "Whether authorities are behind the campaign is no longer important," Lü said. "Spontaneous nationalism and state-stoked nationalism have seamlessly integrated." As China grapples with crises in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as a strained relationship with the U.S., if anyone is labeled as a separatist or pro-America, "You are sentenced to political death," Lü said.

'We won't be scared into silence'

After Xiao's Weibo account was deleted, web users flocked to her store on ecommerce platform Taobao, where she and Zheng Churan, another activist, sell feminist-themed merchandise to support themselves. Haters have sent incessant vitriol and threats through Taobao's messaging tool, including one that "wishes [her] entire family a violent death." Taobao subsequently delisted more than 20 products from the feminists' store, citing violations following "media exposure."

Xiao described herself as "living in fear and rage" since the incident. She said that whenever she sees a man looking at his phone on the street, she now wonders if he is busy hurling threats at her. But she said she's not ready to give up, and is instead preparing a tort lawsuit against Weibo.

"We won't be scared into silence," Xiao said. "Women have lived in terror throughout history. We've survived bloodier violence. Cyberviolence won't stop us from fighting for women's rights."

Policy

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Policy

The US and EU are splitting on tech policy. That’s putting the web at risk.

A conversation with Cédric O, the former French minister of state for digital.

“With the difficulty of the U.S. in finding political agreement or political basis to legislate more, we are facing a risk of decoupling in the long term between the EU and the U.S.”

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.

O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Latest Stories
Bulletins