Protocol | 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."

Facebook wants to be a metaverse company. What about Facebook.com?

Will the metaverse kill Facebook's legacy apps and services?

Will the metaverse replace Facebook's existing apps and services?

Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

At this week's Facebook Connect conference, Mark Zuckerberg is expected to unveil additional details about his company's quest to build the metaverse. That includes a new generation of social media services that brings real-time communication to AR, VR and other platforms, complete with varying degrees of embodied presence (in the future, we'll all be avatars).

Facebook has been spending heavily on this endeavor, including more than $10 billion in 2021 alone. During Thursday's Connect keynote, Zuckerberg is expected to share a few more details on what all this money is being spent on, including an update on the company's social VR world, called Horizon.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

If you've ever tried to pick up a new fitness routine like running, chances are you may have fallen into the "motivation vs. habit" trap once or twice. You go for a run when the sun is shining, only to quickly fall off the wagon when the weather turns sour.

Similarly, for many businesses, 2020 acted as the storm cloud that disrupted their plans for innovation. With leaders busy grappling with the pandemic, innovation frequently got pushed to the backburner. In fact, according to McKinsey, the majority of organizations shifted their focus mainly to maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic.

Keep Reading Show less
Gaurav Kataria
Group Product Manager, Trello at Atlassian

There’s a platform war brewing in the NFT gaming space

Valve's NFT ban has created the makings of a platform war in the burgeoning blockchain gaming space.

Play-to-earn is a whole new paradigm, based on creating real-world value out of in-game items and other forms of digital goods using non-fungible tokens, cryptocurrency and other blockchain technologies.

Image: Axie Infinity

The worlds of crypto and video games are fast colliding. The combination, dubbed "play-to-earn" and more broadly part of the decentralization movement known as "web3," could result in a whole new generation of gaming experiences with real-world economies and new player incentives. This, in turn, could radically upend traditional business models in the game industry.

That is, of course, if the traditional platform gatekeepers in gaming decide to open their doors. Right now, many of them are shut, leaving these games in their corners of the internet, and it's not clear what it might take to get the most powerful companies in the industry to open their arms to these new technologies. Meanwhile, the blockchain gaming market has become one of the fastest-growing segments in the game industry, and it's showing no signs of stopping.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about FCC nominee Gigi Sohn

The veteran of some of the earliest tech policy fights is a longtime consumer champion and net-neutrality advocate.

Gigi Sohn, who President Joe Biden nominated to serve on the FCC, is a longtime net-neutrality advocate.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as a Federal Communications Commissioner, teeing up a Democratic majority at the agency that oversees broadband issues after months of delay.

Like Lina Khan, who Biden picked in June to head up the Federal Trade Commission, Sohn is a progressive favorite. And if confirmed, she'll take up a position in an agency trying to pull policy levers on net neutrality, privacy and broadband access even as Congress is stalled.

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.

Protocol | Workplace

Adobe wants a more authentic NFT world

Adobe's Content Credentials feature will allow Creative Cloud subscribers to attach edit-tracking information to Photoshop files. The goal is to create a more trustworthy NFT market and digital landscape.

Adobe's Content Credentials will allow users to attach their identities to an image

Image: Adobe

Remember the viral, fake photo of Kurt Cobain and Biggie Smalls that duped and delighted the internet in 2017? Doctored images manipulate people and erode trust and we're not great at spotting them. The entire point of the emerging NFT art market is to create valuable and scarce digital files and when there isn't an easy way to check for an image's origin and edits, there's a problem. What if someone steals an NFT creator's image and pawns it off as their own? As a hub for all kinds of multimedia, Adobe feels a responsibility to combat misinformation and provide a safe space for NFT creators. That's why it's rolling out Content Credentials, a record that can be attached to a Photoshop file of a creator's identity and includes any edits they made.

Users can connect their social media addresses and crypto wallet addresses to images in Photoshop. This further proves the image creator's identity, but it's also helpful in determining the creators of NFTs. Adobe has partnered with NFT marketplaces KnownOrigin, OpenSea, Rarible and SuperRare in this effort. "Today there's not a way to know that the NFT you're buying was actually created by a true creator," said Adobe General Counsel Dana Rao. "We're allowing the creator to show their identity and attach it to the image."

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Latest Stories