When the Internet Knows Where You Live

When the Internet Knows Where You Live

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On April 28, Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, announced that it would begin displaying users’ IP address locations on their profile pages and on all replies posted to the site. The company framed the feature as a necessary measure for “maintaining a healthy and orderly environment for discussion.”

According to Weibo’s official community account, the new location feature is simply another tool in the site’s battle against misinformation: a way to stop users pretending they are eyewitnesses or participants in major events. A March post announcing the update made specific mention of both the war between Russia and Ukraine and the recent spate of domestic COVID-19 outbreaks as examples of the kind of controversial topics the feature will address.

Displaying users’ locations or IP addresses isn’t unprecedented. Early forums on the Chinese mainland displayed users’ IP addresses, as does PTT, a popular forum in Taiwan that spawned the catchphrase “search your IP” — a reference to the ease with which posts coming from government buildings, public relations agencies, or overseas users could be identified.

But such practices are a distant memory to most internet users on the Chinese mainland. Since the decline of forums and the Facebook-like Renren, newer apps like Weibo, WeChat, and Douyin —the Chinese version of TikTok — have redefined users’ relationship with personal privacy. Although Chinese platforms now generally require users to provide identifying information such as a phone number when registering, the information they display on their profiles is left to users’ discretion, and anonymity has become the default.

This is true even of public figures. Weibo’s own CEO, Wang Gaofei, posts under the handle “Between Coming and Going,” and his profile identifies him only as a “mobile internet analyst.” This can have unexpected consequences: In 2015, Wang expressed surprise when his account was penalized for a violation of the site’s community policy violation by a Weibo moderator who was likely unaware of his identity.

Weibo’s tolerance for anonymity, combined with the site’s relatively open structure, helped turn it into a lively public square in which its 600 million users felt relatively free to exchange ideas and engage in bold discussions on social issues. It’s also exacerbated some of the problems of the Web 2.0 era. The platform has struggled to cope with a rise in abusive posts, trolling, and hate speech. Distrust and hostility have taken over the site.

Rather than view this as a trade-off for the benefits of anonymity, or as a natural consequence of the way social media brings people from across the political spectrum together, some users see a conspiracy. The accounts that disagree with them are not doing so out of deeply held principles or beliefs, but because they are bots or agents of shadowy political forces. These accusations have become more common in recent years, propelled by the rising tide of populism. The pandemic, which might have united humanity in a common cause, only made matters worse, as unsubstantiated theories about the virus’s origin and the safety of various vaccines spread like wildfire online.

It’s naive to think that social trust can be rebuilt via technological patch.

This has produced a worldview in which enemies lurk behind every social media handle. During the recent COVID-19 lockdowns, for instance, popular bloggers and even some scholars have routinely accused social media platforms like Weibo of being compromised by foreign forces seeking to undermine China and its pandemic prevention strategy.

It’s therefore not surprising that some users applauded Weibo’s new rule. A few of the above-mentioned bloggers seized on the location tags to “prove” that people who disagreed with them were doing so from outside China.

Soon, however, it became clear that location info was not a panacea — not least because the managing of major accounts is often a transnational affair. Users were puzzled to find that Boris Johnson was posting from the southern province of Guangdong, while Russian figure skater and Olympic gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova’s account was located in the United States. A number of China’s most prominent nationalist bloggers suddenly had to explain why they were posting from overseas.

Weibo quickly clarified the rule, stating that verified accounts would be allowed to hide their IP addresses, provided the person or organization behind them has publicly identified themselves. But that only reignited the controversy over the privileges enjoyed by verified users.

On a more fundamental level, it’s naive to think that social trust can be rebuilt via a technological patch. Social media has no doubt helped amplify extreme voices, but just as scholars pinpoint the 2008 financial crisis as a watershed moment in the rise of populism in America and across the West, Chinese internet watchers must grapple with the role regional and international inequalities in education, job opportunities, and digital literacy have played in the deterioration of the country’s online spaces. Stigmas, discrimination, and inferiority or superiority complexes, many of them regionally based, are as much problems online as they are offline.

If anything, the IP location policy may make matters worse. Although international users are identified only by country, domestic users are tagged by province. Users can no longer escape regional stereotypes online. Post from Shanghai, and other users will write you off as wealthy and out of touch; post from the central province of Henan, and you’ll be mocked as a thieving bumpkin.

The situation isn’t better for international users, including the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and millions of Chinese workers living abroad. Since it’s impossible to tell an overseas student from a foreign agent through their IP location alone, anyone posting from abroad may find themselves attacked and harassed for harboring ulterior motives.

Anyone posting from abroad may find themselves attacked and harassed for harboring ulterior motives.

Indeed, for all the company’s efforts to regulate certain discussions, Weibo has largely taken a laissez-faire attitude toward hate speech and harassment. In 2020, Luo Xiang, an outspoken law professor and popular vlogger, quit the site after a vicious troll campaign. More recently, a Shanghai resident jumped to her death after receiving a wave of messages accusing her of not giving a sufficiently generous tip to a delivery driver. During the Wuhan lockdown in 2020, a handful of anonymous but influential bloggers harassed the relatives of COVID-19 victims. Although they were suspended, the punishment lasted just 15 days and they were allowed to keep their verified badges.

Part of the problem is that it’s in Weibo’s interest to play with fire. The site profits from engagement with controversial content, whether that’s sexist comments by high profile figures or COVID-19 conspiracy theories. A 2020 data analysis by The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, found that the most visible figure on Weibo’s heavily promoted “trending” chart was Donald Trump.

Since Weibo introduced the new feature in March, other major Chinese social media apps, including ByteDance’s Jinri Toutiao news service and Tencent’s WeChat, have started testing geolocation features of their own. The moves come months after the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China published a draft regulation that would require all social media platforms to display users’ IP locations in their profiles. If that draft becomes law, Chinese social media may become a more transparent, yet also more polarized space — a development that ironically might benefit the platforms most of all.

If Weibo and other social media apps really cared about transparency and accountability as much as they say do, they’d apply the same standards to their own community policies, recommendation algorithms, and financial arrangements with advertisers. As for our own identities, beliefs, and experiences, they are far too complex to be boiled down into a single geographic tag. No one should be judged on where they come from, much less where they post from. Underlying the new feature is an essentialist worldview that sees everyone through the lens of “us versus them.” In the process, it denies us the very thing that makes us human: agency.

Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Visual elements from Fantastic Graphics and Shomiz/DigitalVision/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)

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