The massive Chinese social media network Sina Weibo informed its platform’s most popular users last week that they must display their real identities, including names, gender, IP locations, as well as professional and educational background, on their account page starting at the end of October.
The policy will first apply to Weibo users with more than 1 million followers and later extend to those with half a million followers. It is believed that other social media platforms in China will also follow the move.
China implemented the online real-name registration system in 2012. Under the policy, personal data are stored on the platforms and are invisible to other users. Last year, Chinese social media platforms started displaying the IP locations of social media users to crack down on online rumors, including witness accounts of social incidents such as protests.
The latest change was confirmed by Weibo’s CEO Wang Gaofei, who briefly activated the personal information display on his profile page on October 20, 2023. Wang’s social credit status, employment, and professional and educational background were all listed on this profile page (See: screen capture of Wang's profile page via Weibo user @皇城根下刀笔吏)
The new policy triggered a heated debate on Chinese social media. Unexpectedly, online patriots, who are usually fairly united, split into two camps over the new requirements.
Supporters argued that the policy could reduce online rumours and that influencers should bear more social responsibility and reveal their genuine identity to their readers. Among them is state-owned Global Times’ top commentator Hu Xijin, who commented on the new measure on Weibo on October 16:
A big V (verified user) voicing on the internet should reveal their identity to the public. His acquaintance should also know what he says on the internet. This rule should not obstruct the big Vs’ appropriate speech but will increase the quality of the opinions on the internet.
The backstage real-name system was implemented. Both the platforms and the government know what he has said and can find him if needed. The frontstage real name system is to prevent them from hiding the truth from other internet users. Freedom of expression is to counterbalance those who hold power, but it does not mean protecting those who attempt to influence the public. Judging from the online environment, allowing people to “open fire from the dark” and channel public opinion will have more adverse effects on the well-being of the public opinion domain.
But not all online patriots agree with the policy. One patriotic opinion leader @皇城根下刀笔吏 (Huangcheng-genxia-daobili) considered shutting down his Weibo account, which has accumulated more than 2 million followers in reaction to the new policy:
If I say something that pisses off others and they file complaints against my employer, I might lose my job. I don't make much money online; with the current economic environment and a family to take care of, I could not risk losing my job.
I have been writing on Weibo for six to seven years and express my opinions daily… I have accumulated a large number of fans, and inevitably, a few do not like my opinions. Once the policy is imposed, all big Vs would become hate targets… If the front-stage real identity policy is to be implemented in such a manner (as shown in Weibo’s CEO Wang Gaofei’s profile page), I would not allow that to happen. Either the platform restricts access to my page, or I will shut it down.
Wuxin Jianying (@无心简影), a patriotic international news blogger with 1.4 million followers on Weibo, criticised the policy for facilitating bullying:
Frontstage display of real identity would expose personal privacy to the public. Once your speech has offended the extreme ones, such as those in fan circles or overseas dissidents, the real identity display would help them dig out all our personal data. A few years ago, I was doxxed by overseas scums who kept calling my mobile phone. I was also harassed on WeChat. I reported to the police, who could do nothing to help me. However, I am single, and my three cats are free from cyberbullying… It is such a joke that the authorities keep cracking down on cyber violence on the one hand while, on the other hand, facilitating and enhancing such acts.
Tsinghua law professor Lao Dongyan warned that outing people's real identities may extend cyber violence to real life if the name of the internet user is distinctive. Moreover, the personal data would also facilitate other crimes, such as targeted scams.
Weibo user @无边桃炎 (Wubian Taoyan), who has 1.7 million followers, is worried about a surge in gender violence targeting female bloggers. She shared a conversation with her friend on Weibo:
A: 男性還有些防範力量，女性不知要怎麼辧, 我不擔心我自己，因為我已經歷過一次, 那種獨居女性怎辧, 從法律，到警力，都無法保障博主們安全, 他們不會去防範未發生的事，只有發生以後才會介入…
A: I am very worried about female bloggers, given the antagonistic gender relations online
B: There will be more offline harassment
A: Male has a bit more physical strength to fight back; it would be more threatening for females. I am not worrying about myself as I have gone through this once. What if the female lives alone? The law and the police can’t protect the bloggers. They won’t take preventive measures. They only intervene after violence has taken place.
In fact, quite a few influencers have shut down their Weibo account recently thanks to the new policy. For example, anonymous patriotic rapper @幼稚园杀手 (kindergarten killer) deleted his Weibo account on October 16, 2023.
As for overseas Chinese who have already migrated to X, formerly called Twitter, many are laughing at the news. For example @torontobigface said:
— 多伦多方脸 (@torontobigface) October 16, 2023
Big V's real identity display will be enforced soon. I expect many jokes will pop up. Like last time the IP location display was enforced, the online patriotic account Diba’s IP was in Taiwan. There is no privacy in China. After enforcing the policy, people can easily find out which company is registered under your name, and your plane itinerary and address can be dug out. We will see a lot of surprises.
Meanwhile, video bloggers from the video streaming platform Bilibibi also received notifications that their real identities would be displayed on their profile page.