Chinese news app Toutiao draws censors' attention

HONG KONG • One of the world's most valuable startups got that way by using artificial intelligence to satisfy Chinese Internet users' voracious appetite for news and entertainment.

Every day, its smartphone app feeds 120 million people personalised streams of buzzy news stories, videos of dogs frolicking in snow, GIFs of traffic mishaps and listicles such as The World's Ugliest Celebrities. Now the company is discovering the risks involved, under China's censorship regime, in giving the people exactly what they want.

The makers of the popular news app Jinri Toutiao unveiled moves this week to allay rising concerns from the authorities. Last week, the Beijing bureau of China's top Internet regulator accused Toutiao of "spreading pornographic and vulgar information" and "causing a negative impact on public opinion online", and ordered that updates to several popular sections of the app be halted for 24 hours.

In response, the app's parent company, Beijing Bytedance Technology, took down or temporarily suspended the accounts of more than 1,100 bloggers that it said had been publishing "low-quality content" on the app.

It also replaced Toutiao's Society section with a new section called New Era, which is heavy on state media coverage of government decisions.

The episode points to the fine line that Toutiao's creators must walk.

Despite China's famously strict censorship, online news is a big business there.

More than 610 million people in the country accessed some news on the Internet in 2016, according to official statistics.

Toutiao says it uses complex algorithms to decide what its users see. Its daily user base of 120 million people is equivalent to more than one-third of the population of the United States.

Private equity analyst Suan Lin, 24, in Shanghai, said that she normally has to search high and low online to find articles about the Chinese historical dramas she watches on television. But Toutiao delivers, she said. "Once you're on it, you just can't stop," she said.

In China, however, a strong position in media invites scrutiny from the government's censorship apparatus. That scrutiny has become heightened over the past two years as the authorities have looked beyond the political to crack down on news it sees as degrading to society as a whole, which can include things as seemingly unsubversive as celebrity gossip.

In Toutiao's case, one of the accounts that was suspended this week had posted a saucy video of a woman in a short skirt. It got 57,000 views. "Once you have more people watching, then you want to be more cautious," Wei-Ying Ma, who heads Toutiao's artificial intelligence lab, told a conference in Beijing last month.

As Toutiao's popularity has skyrocketed, Bytedance has become a darling of Silicon Valley investors such as Sequoia Capital.

The company, which is valued at US$20 billion (S$27 billion), has been in talks with existing backers to raise new financing that would value the company at more than US$30 billion, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That price tag would make Bytedance among the most valuable privately held technology companies in the world.

Airbnb is said to be valued at around US$30 billion. SpaceX, the rocket-maker founded by Mr Elon Musk, is valued at US$21 billion.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2018, with the headline 'Chinese news app Toutiao draws censors' attention'. Print Edition | Subscribe