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WeChat caves in to public pressure over ad crackdown

2014-04-21 09:07 Global Times Web Editor: Gu Liping

A public outcry appears to have forced Internet giant Tencent to backtrack on a decision to permanently close 200 WeChat social media accounts for posting advertisements, instead announcing these user accounts would be suspended for a week.

The 102 users of the 200 accounts, which combined have over 9 million followers, were told Wednesday that they would be shut forever. This is because they are in breach of the rules of Tencent Holdings Ltd, developer of WeChat, or known as Weixin in Chinese.

A letter of complaint was posted on rival social media site Sina Weibo on Saturday by the "Self-media labor union" formed by account holders. It said that Tencent did not respect the account holders, who were not informed before the closure of accounts and had no way to appeal.

"Such a massive crackdown makes every account operator panic and they have to speak and act cautiously," said the letter.

A Tencent media officer then responded on his Weibo account saying those accounts were found to have been posting advertisements to sell watches and bags to their followers, an action that WeChat prohibits.

An online fiction writer surnamed Lu, who represents the 102 authors and drafted the letter of complaint. "They [WeChat] think the suspension is a lenient punishment, because at the weekend they said the accounts would be closed for good."

When approached by the Global Times, another Tencent media officer refrained from confirming whether the "lenient punishment" of closing the accounts for a week rather than for good came as a result of the pressure.

Lu said the crackdown is reminiscent of what happened in mid-March, when 35 public accounts on WeChat were closed.

Those accounts, including both liberal-leaning accounts and the conservative Land of Utopia, mainly posted articles about politics, history and viewpoints on social news.

"By the March crackdown the company [Tencent] has shown clearly it does not welcome any sensitive information," said Wu Wuhui, a new media expert and also a public account operator at WeChat.

"But this time many of the accounts being cracked down on are like readers' digests with jokes and other lifestyle things," said Lu, admitting some users, including herself, will insert commercials to support their accounts with user-generated content.

Wu alleged that Tencent's clampdowns were out of political and commercial concerns.

"It doesn't want to be another Weibo where Net users used to be so vocal and the company had to delete many posts, including sensitive comments that could not be seen on traditional media," he said.

Weibo has seen a drop in its active users following a guideline from China's top court in September 2013 intended to halt the spread of rumors and falsehoods online. A report by China Internet Network Information Center said in 2013 that 37.4 percent of Net users had transferred to WeChat.

"WeChat is on a path to becoming a combined e-commerce, mobile instant messaging and social networking site. It does not want to become a 'new media' outlet for people to talk about politics," Wu said.

Some of the accounts closed in March re-opened after a few days, but Xu Xin, a law professor at the Beijing Institute of Science and Technology, said his public account "poet justice" has not been resumed yet.

Five days after the March crackdown, Tencent said in a statement that they took the action to safeguard user experience. As a public platform, WeChat strictly prohibits what it called malicious marketing, as well as pornography, violence, and political rumors.

Xu said his articles were not radical at all and all were based on his knowledge of the law.

A source from Tencent told the Global Times on condition of anonymity that every day some accounts are closed for either "malicious marketing" or spreading "sensitive political topics."

Some accounts, the source said, after attracting a certain amount of followers by posting stories with strong political inclinations, will start to recommend various products and spread advertisements.

The problematic accounts were normally spotted through tip-offs.

"What cannot appear on Weibo cannot be posted on WeChat either," the source said.

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