China's new wave of young Internet cops

Employees at Beijing ByteDance Technology’s headquarters in Beijing scour the Internet for content that runs counter to Communist Party doctrine. The office is brightly decorated and the dress code is casual.
Employees at Beijing ByteDance Technology’s headquarters in Beijing scour the Internet for content that runs counter to Communist Party doctrine. The office is brightly decorated and the dress code is casual. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Growing demand for cyberspace 'auditors' as government tightens online censorship

TIANJIN • In a glass tower in a trendy part of China's eastern city of Tianjin, hundreds of young men and women sit in front of computer screens, scouring the Internet for content that runs counter to Communist Party doctrine.

References to Chinese President Xi Jinping are scrutinised, as are funny nicknames for state leaders. And any mention of the Tiananmen protests in 1989 is immediately excised.

The censors review videos, users' posts and news, targeting topics such as violence, drug addiction, extramarital affairs, sexual innuendo and religious cults.

Welcome to China's new world of online censorship, where George Orwell's classic 1984 meets Silicon Valley start-up.

The censors in the Tianjin office - or "auditors" - work for Beijing ByteDance Technology, better known as Toutiao, a popular and fast-growing news-feed app.

Dressed in casual attire, the censors sit in bright offices, using laptops. "Our corporate culture is really good; every afternoon, for example, we get together for tea," said a censor.

Toutiao's Tianjin "auditing" centre is at the heart of a vast Chinese censorship effort that is growing fast as official scrutiny of online content intensifies.

Figures released by state media outlet Beijing News show that China had about two million online content monitors in government departments and private firms in 2013. Academics estimate that the number has since risen sharply.

The government has been tightening control over videos, chat platforms and social media ahead of a Communist Party congress next month at which Mr Xi is expected to bolster his leadership.

Companies such as Toutiao are responding, hiring armies of workers to police videos, blogs and news articles available to its 120 million users across China.

"We had about 30 to 40 employees two years ago; now we have nearly 1,000 reviewing and auditing," said the Toutiao censor, who asked not to be named due to the topic's sensitivity.

A receptionist at Toutiao's Tianjin office said: "One year ago, there was one floor, now we have 10."

With headquarters in Beijing, Toutiao said it had been expanding its teams rapidly.

"We have invested in developing sophisticated AI (artificial intelligence) analytical tools and stringent content management processes to weed out low quality and fake content."

An advertisement that Toutiao posted this month sought 100 fresh graduates to work in "content audit", earning between 4,000 yuan (S$820) and 6,000 yuan per month.

Successful candidates need to "love news and current affairs", and also be "politically savvy" and "understand the laws and regulations governing Internet supervision", the ad said.

The censors rotate between day and night shifts; the peak time for censoring content is from 6pm to 9pm.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2017, with the headline 'China's new wave of young Internet cops'. Print Edition | Subscribe