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No Laughing Matter: China Shuts Down Popular Joke-Sharing App

NeihanShequ's application icon on Android phone.

Authorities in China have ordered a ban on NeihanShequ, a popular app for jokes and riddles, arguing that Neihan content has become too “vulgar” and “banal”.

On April 10, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of China (SAPPRFT) ordered Toutiao or Today’s Headline, China’s most popular information platform, to shut down its affiliated social media application, NeihanShequ (內涵段子). Neihan allowed users to submit jokes and riddles in multimedia format, for others to comment on and vote up or down.

SAPPRFT’s press release on April 10 stated:

國家廣播電視總局在督察《今日頭條》的整改工作中,發現該公司推送的「內涵段子」軟件和相關公眾號存在導向不正、格調低俗等突出問題,並引發網民強烈反感。廣電總局以「為維護網絡視聽節目傳播秩序,清朗互聯網空間視聽環境」等原因,責令《今日頭條》永久關停「內涵段子」的客戶端軟件及公眾號,並要求公司舉一反三,全面清理類似視聽節目產品。

During the supervision of Toutiao’s rectification, SAPPRFT discovered that the company’s affiliated content application and public account, NeihanShequ, is heading a wrong direction with its vulgar and banal content. Netizens have strong reaction against such content. To maintain the order of internet visual and audio content and provide a clean environment, SAPPRFT ordered NeihanShequ to shut down its application and public account permanently. The company [Toutaio] has to learn the lesson and clean up audio visual content products with similar nature.

Launched in 2012, NeihanShequ’s application has had more than 14 million downloads. The application is a rising star among a dozen more popular content applications affiliated with Toutiao, which had an estimated USD $22 billion market value in August 2017.

The company’s CEO Zhang Yiming issued a public apology in response to SAPPRFT’s order:

我真诚地向监管部门致歉,向用户及同事们道歉。产品走错了路,出现了与社会主义核心价值观不符的内容,没有贯彻好舆论导向,接受处罚,所有责任在我。

I sincerely apologize to the supervision authority, our users and colleagues. The product has taken a wrong direction against the socialist core value and has not fulfilled the responsibility of public opinion channeling. I accept the punishment and I should be the one taking all the responsibility.

Zhang also promised that Toutiao will strengthen self-censorship measures by increasing the pre-screen staff team from 6,000 to 10,000 people.

The public reaction to the ban has been strong — many have expressed their frustration through humor, in keeping with the spirit of Neihan.

Some Neihan community members have created flashmob videos mourning the shutdown of the site. Most of these videos also have been taken down from public domain, but some are still available. Here is one backup video on Facebook in which people collectively sing a mourning song.

A widely circulated remix image mourning the shutdown of NeihanShequ.

Although most of the multimedia content mourning the shutdown has been censored, text content is still searchable. A widely circulated mourning statement read:

繼微博被僵屍化微信被圈化後,久經考驗,無比忠誠的短視頻主義戰士,偉大的搞笑家、段子家人內涵同志,於2018年4月10日與世長辭,享年2314天。
草木含淚,道友同悲,網友震驚。內涵段子同志安詳的躺在蒼松翌柏間,覆蓋著一面鮮艷的蕢旗,象徵著他畢生的追求。
騰訊微搏因為封號無法出席追悼會,微信也因禁言失去聯係。QQ也因版本過低無法登陸。
Youtube、Twitter、Facebook等國際友人發來悼電,今日頭條、網易新聞贈送了花圈;快拍、火山、抖音等親朋鞠躬哀悼。

Weibo was turned into a zombie. WeChat was trapped in countless circles. And then, the loyal short video fighter, the great joker, family storyteller, our friend Neihan left the world on 10 April 2018. He lived for 2,314 days.

Trees and grass shed tears, fellows are in grief. Our friend Neihan lies in peace upon green pine leaves, covered with a colourful flag which symbolizes what he pursued throughout his life.

Tencent and Weibo could not attend the mourning because their accounts had been suspended. WeChat was incommunicado. QQ was undergoing system maintenance.

International friends including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook sent their condolences. Toutiao and Netease News sent flowers. Kuaipai, Houshan, Tik Tok attended the mourning in person and bowed to Neihan.

Other netizens have suggested that the ban was motivated mainly by the strength of the Neihan community, which could be seen as a threat to power, rather than by vulgarity or banality as stated by authorities.

低俗只是个借口 微博就没有低俗内容? 只是段友现在已经发展的太庞大了

Vulgarity is just an excuse. Weibo also has vulgar content. The main reason is that the community of Neihan was getting too strong.

永久关停内涵段子,你是怕段友的组织能力超过你某党吗

Shutting down Neihan permanently. Are you afraid that the users’ organization power is stronger than a certain Party?

一个国家,一个政府,一个国家监管部门!连一个笑话软件都害怕,真是个笑话

A country, a government, a supervision department. They are all scared of a joke-sharing application, this is such a joke.

Others have reflected on the strength of Neihan as a community and described the values that brought users together:

内涵段子,不低俗,不色情。 段友四不笑、不笑贫穷、不笑疾病、不笑天灾、不笑人祸,段友三不黑,不黑育人之师,不黑护国之军,不黑救人之医。 如有违规者,不是不知情就是故意,违规的这些人根本算不上段友也不配。 虽然内涵不在,但段友永在 嘀~嘀嘀

Neihan’s posts are far from vulgar and obscene. The community has a set of common values. They would not laugh at poverty, sickness, disaster or accident. They would not mock teachers, soldiers, doctors. The community looks down on those who violate the shared code. Though there is no more Neihan, the community still exists. Di-didi [Neihan's secret code].

我希望我还来得及说出这句话。人生真的很短,内涵段子陪我走了两年,很多个夜晚都是它陪我度过,它真的让我在最孤独的日子里开心过,没心没肺的笑过。听说马上就要下架了,我真的希望是谣言,假如真的以后都没有这个软件了,我希望大家不要忘记这它,我希望若干年后我还在马路上听到滴 滴滴我相信你们

I hope I can still share my feelings. Life is short and Neihan has accompanied me for two years. When I was lonely, I spent the nights with the app and had a good laugh. Now that it has to be shut down, I hope this is a rumor. But if it turns out to be true, I hope people won’t forget about it and I can still hear di didi [a secret code shared by Neihan community] when I walk down the street many years later. I believe in you all.

Neihan is not the only target in this latest crackdown. Authorities seem to be focused on multimedia content platforms, as content-based censorship on these platforms can be difficult.

Two other multimedia content platforms affiliated with Toutiao are under pressure to clean up their content. Tik Tok, a music video social media application, activated an “anti-addiction” function on April 10. Houshan, a video selfie-sharing application, has been temporary taken down by SAPPRFT.

Kauishou, a popular image sharing app, was pressured to hire 3,000 new staff to pre-screen its content after SAPPRFT issued a temporary take-down notice early this month.

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