When are bikinis allowed on China’s live-streaming apps, and when are they not?
As content moderators at Inke, one of China’s largest live-streaming companies with 25 million users, Zhi Heng and his brigade of 1,200 mostly fresh-faced college graduates have seconds to decide whether the two-piece swimwear on their screens breaches rules governing use of the platform.Here on the front lines of China’s war to police the internet, companies employ armies of censors to adjudicate the sea of content produced each day for and by the world’s biggest online population.
As of the end of last year, almost 400 million people in China had done the equivalent of a Facebook Live and live-streamed their activities on the internet. Most of it is innocuous: showing relatives and friends back home the sights of Paris or showing nobody in particular what they are having for lunch or dinner.
There are also professional “live-streamers” who broadcast for a living, much like YouTubers do on the Google-owned platform. Many of these pro streamers use the app to sell merchandise, others sing sappy love songs in return for virtual rewards. If one were to count short-form videos, messaging apps, online forums and other formats, the amount of content being produced each day would be impossible to censor without the help of technology.
“You need to really focus on your work,” Zhi Heng, who heads Inke’s content safety team, said in an interview at the company’s offices in a high-tech industrial park in Changsha, central China. “You cannot let past anything that is against the law and regulations, against mainstream values and against the company’s values.
Inke agreed to show the Post how its content moderation operations work, the first time that the Hong Kong-listed company has given an interview about a topic that is usually regarded as sensitive by companies and regulators.
Headquartered in Beijing with a second base in Changsha, Inke employs artificial intelligence algorithms and recognition software help human moderators do their jobs.
AI is employed to handle the grunt work of labelling, rating and sorting content into different risk categories. This classification system then allows the company to devote resources in ascending order of risk. A single reviewer can monitor more low-risk content at one time, say cooking shows, while high-risk content is flagged for closer scrutiny.China’s iFlytek censors politically sensitive terms on its translation app
Which brings us back to the bikini question. The answer to that, it turns out, is something AI is not yet very good at: context.
To an algorithm, a bikini is a bikini. But to a human, a bikini in different settings can mean very different things. So, a bikini at a swimming pool with children running about? Fine. Skimpy two-piece in a bedroom with soft, romantic background music? Probably not.
The most-censored activity on Inke’s live-streaming platform, though, is smoking, which is not allowed because the authorities see it as promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. Showing excessive tattoos is also a no-no.
China closely patrols online activity and censors content critical of the ruling Communist Party and politically sensitive terms such as the Dalai Lama, Tiananmen crackdown and Falun Gong. Beijing justifies the “Great Firewall”, as the system of censorship and access control is dubbed, as the right of every country to control its domestic internet space – a concept it calls “cyber sovereignty”.
Former US president Bill Clinton was wrong when he likened China’s attempts to control its domestic internet to nailing Jello to the wall, as it has created tools of social control that “our parents couldn’t have dreamed of,” according to Kyle Langvardt, an associate law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy whose research focuses on the First Amendment to the US Constitution and related issues.
“Overall, of course, I find China’s censorship policies extremely disturbing – and that’s particularly true when it comes to the government’s efforts to stifle controversy and political dissent. So the downside, from my perspective, is overwhelming,” Langvardt said. “There are upsides, however. If content moderation helps to prevent real-world violence incited by viral content, for example (see Myanmar, Sri Lanka), that’s important.”
Globally, governments are increasingly defining the boundaries of acceptable online discourse in order to curb the ability of hate groups, conspiracy theorists and propagandists to use social media and other internet platforms to spread lies and incite violence.China shuts education app in crackdown on ‘vulgar, pornographic content’
Facebook admitted last November that it did not do enough to prevent its platform from being used to “foment division and incite offline violence” in Myanmar against the Muslim Rohingya minority. That came after the United Nations described the events surrounding the mass exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya people from Myanmar as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Facebook was again heavily criticised last month after a gunman streamed his attacks on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead. Though the account was quickly shut down, a video of the massacre circulated widely online.Australia swiftly passed legislation threatening huge fines and prison time for executives of social media companies that fail to quickly remove violent posts. Singapore is debating legislation to tackle “fake news”. The UK on Monday proposed new rules to hold senior managers of technology companies personally liable for failing to address online harm.Chinese news app Toutiao offers cash rewards to best stories that quash rumours
On March 31, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg published an open letter inviting governments and regulators to play “a more active role” in deciding what is harmful content, to help ensure election integrity, privacy and data portability.
Back in Changsha at the offices of Inke, the content safety team is mid-way through the day shift. It is very quiet on the spacious floor, with most of the reviewers wearing headphones and staring at their screens.