Volcanoes and Peppers

FOLLOWING A DAMNING REPORT over the weekend by China’s state-run broadcaster, China Central Television, alleging the proliferation of vulgar content through popular live streaming apps, authorities in Beijing met yesterday with the operators of three popular apps, ordering them to fully submit to “rectification,” or zhenggai — a term that refers in Chinese to an overhaul of operations, possibly involving the removal or reshuffling of management staff.

The three app operators were reportedly “invited to discussions” with the Beijing municipal office of the Cyberspace Administration of China and ordered to immediately desist from unspecified violations of Chinese regulations. They include Toutiao (今日头条), an app that offers automated selection of news stories, and “Volcano Live” (火山直播) and “Pepper Live” (花椒直播), both social platforms for live video streaming. Toutiao was apparently included in the action against live streaming services because it began providing regular links to live streamed shows last year.

The “discussions” reportedly involved the municipal public security bureau as well as the Administrative Law Enforcement Corps of the Culture Market (文化市场行政执法总队), which often spearheads local campaigns in China against obscene or pornographic content.

The Administrative Law Enforcement Corps has already opened investigations against the above-mentioned live streaming services, state media reported, and will refer criminal cases against individual live broadcasters — presumably meaning users of the services — to the police. The next step, according to media reports, is for the three official agencies to take up the issue of content violations with Apple Inc., “demanding that it strengthen review procedures for live streaming services offered through its AppStore.”

[ABOVE: The Volcano Live app as it appeared in the AppStore on April 18, 2017.]

Live streaming apps emerged in China during the second half of 2015, developing rapidly. By the end of 2015, the country had close to 200 live streaming platforms in operation. The emerging industry experienced tremendous growth in China in 2016, reaching an estimated 344 million users by year’s end.

But live streaming apps have also come under intense scrutiny. Earlier this month, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the internet control body created by President Xi Jinping in 2014, announced that it had shut down 18 live streaming apps operating illegally, saying “anchors,” or individual program hosts, had “spread illegal content, dressed in military or police uniforms or were scantily dressed and acted flirtatiously.”

“The online behavior of the anchors violated relevant internet information service or live streaming laws and regulations, offended socialist core values, and brought negative impact to the healthy growth of the young and teenagers,” the CAC said.
The agency has so far blacklisted close to 2,000 anchors it said had “severely violated relevant regulations,” preventing them from registering new accounts on live streaming platforms.

While the report from CCTV and campaigns against live streaming have emphasized the need to restrict indecent content for the benefit of Chinese youth, it is also clear that tightening restrictions are part of a broader effort to assert control over all forms of content finding space through these new services.

Back in January, an article in the People’s Tribune, published by the official People’s Daily, noted that streaming platforms made it difficult to control “guidance of speech” (言论导向), a reference to the overarching goal of social and political control through the media. The article also said some content on live streaming platforms disadvantaged the “correct channeling of public opinion,” a term denoting the Party’s control and manipulation of information.

“Owing to the fact that online anchors do not require examination of credentials to start working,” it said, “some anchors lack political literacy and media integrity. They take a shallow view of problems and wantonly criticize political events, inciting the sentiments of the people and demonizing public figures. Their inflammatory and severe language disadvantages correct channeling of public opinion, harms the development of general political literacy, and even unleashes irrational and extreme ‘patriotic’ behavior, doing damage to society.”

Soon after news of the “discussion” with the three apps went public yesterday, one of the companies concerned, Pepper Live, posted a notice online in which it thanked CCTV for its “attention to and monitoring of the live streaming industry,” and pledged to improve its oversight, helping to “clean up the live streaming environment.”

Noting that it already had 600 internal staff dedicated to content review on a 24-hour basis, the platform said it would “further expand the intensity of oversight” in light of “line-balls” — a reference to media content that falls just out of bounds or pushes the envelope.

“As an industry that is still very young, live streaming is in a period of rapid development, and a number of problems have emerged in this process,” read the notice from Pepper Live. “As we strengthen our internal controls, we also call on our colleagues in the live streaming industry to respect national laws and regulations, strengthening the oversight and management of live streaming content, and building a green and healthy live streaming environment.”


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