How 2023 marked the death of anonymity online in China

If you think about it, there are so many people we meet on the internet daily whose real names we will never know. The TikTok teen who learned the trendy new dance, the anime artist who uploaded a new painting, the random commenter who posted under a YouTube video you just watched. That’s the internet we are familiar with. At the end of the day, nobody knows whether they are really interacting online with a person or, say, a dog. 

But in China, the dogs are losing their cover, as the government gradually makes it more and more difficult to remain anonymous online.

In reality, it’s already impossible to be fully anonymous online in China. Over the years, to implement a stricter regime of online censorship, the country has built a sophisticated system that requires identity verification to use any online service. In many cases, posting politically sensitive content leads to account removal, calls from the police, or even detention.

But that didn’t necessarily mean everyone else knew who you were. In fact, I’ve always felt there were corners of the Chinese internet in which I could remain obscure, where I could present a different face to the world. I used to discuss the latest pop music and cultural phenomena on the forum Baidu Tieba; I started a burner blog to process a bad breakup and write diaries; I still use Xiaohongshu, the latest trendy platform similar to Instagram, to share and learn cat-care tips. I never tell people my real name, occupation, or location on any of those platforms, and I think that’s fine—good, even. 

But lately, even this last bit of anonymity is slipping away.

In April last year, Chinese social media companies started requiring all users to show their location, tagged via their IP address. Then, this past October, platforms started asking accounts with over 500,000 followers to disclose their real names on their profiles. Many people, including me, worry that the real-name rule will reach everyone soon. Meanwhile, popular platforms like the Q&A forum Zhihu disabled features that let anyone post anonymous replies. 

Each one of these changes seemed incremental when first announced, but now, together, they amount to a vibe shift. It was one thing to be aware of the surveillance from the government, but it’s another thing to realize that every stranger on the internet knows about you too. 

Of course, anonymity online can provide a cover for morally and legally unacceptable behaviors, from the spread of hate and conspiracy theories on forums like 4chan to the ransom attacks and data breaches that deliver profits to hackers. Indeed, the most recent changes regarding real names are being pitched by platforms and the government as a way to reduce online bullying and hold influential people accountable. But in practice, this all very well may have the reverse effect and encourage more harassment.

While some Chinese users are trying new (if ultimately temporary) ways to try to stay anonymous, others are leaving platforms altogether—and taking their sometimes boundary-pushing perspectives with them. The result is not just an obstacle for people who want to come together—maybe around a niche interest, maybe to talk politics, or maybe even to find others who share an identity. It’s also a huge blow to the rare grassroots protests that sometimes still happen on Chinese social media. The internet is about to become a lot quieter—and, ironically, much less useful for anyone who comes here to see and really be seen.

Finding comfort and courage in a screen name 

From its beginning, the internet has been a parallel universe where no one has to use their real identity. From bulletin boards, blogs, and MSN to Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter, people have come up with all kinds of aliases and avatars to present the version of themselves that they want that platform to see.

That’s been as true in China as anywhere else. With the protection of anonymity—since replaced by a state of pseudonymity in which one’s identity is known by the platform and government but not by other users—we have felt more comfortable to express ourselves, whether that meant exposing the wrongdoings of a local government official or writing a queer romance novel that might not be accepted by the mainstream. 

An online identity separate from a real identity gives people the opportunity to be something new. It also allows people to develop new sides of themselves without being always reminded of their limitations elsewhere. 

“Why do I use the internet? It’s because I want to go crazy at a place where no one knows me. If the rule of real name is enforced, you might as well consider me dead,” reads one of the comments on the new rule on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. It’s a sentiment felt by many.

“We can’t change what’s our name or how we look, but we can decide who we are online.”

This landscape also encouraged people to share their expertise and knowledge without worrying that it could cause trouble for themselves. Zhihu, the Chinese alternative to Quora, used to allow users to answer questions with a completely anonymous account. Reading those answers makes it clear that people are more willing to share when they know their posts won’t be found by their employer or colleagues. Zhihu disabled the anonymous reply function this year, too.

Xinyu Pan, a researcher at Hong Kong University, was partly inspired to study the relationship between social media anonymity and moral courage by what she saw on platforms: when someone posted about an experience with domestic violence, comments offering help were often from anonymous accounts using the default avatar and username on the platform. 

“The idea is intuitive … we are more likely to do what’s risky when we feel there’s more protection,” Pan says. Through surveys and experiments with Chinese social media users, Pan found that when users perceive themselves to be anonymous, they are more likely to act courageously.

“I believe that social media anonymity holds particular significance for individuals in collective cultures,” says Pan.

This is in line with what Kyrie Zhou, a security, ethics, and privacy researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, found when he studied the social media feed of Qiaomai, a Chinese writer and feminist activist in her late 30s, who has posted thousands of anonymous submissions on Weibo since 2020. These submissions came in direct messages from her followers, often women who wanted to share their experiences of domestic violence, extramarital affairs, anxiety, sexual harassment, and more. 

With over 1 million followers, Qiaomai served as the voice of the community. “It’s very easy to be harassed on [Chinese] social media if you express ideas of feminism,” Zhou says. He also notes there are other similar accounts that accept and repost anonymous messages for other groups of people who may not be widely accepted—like queer communities, for instance.

“By sharing their experiences anonymously with influencers, empathy, online interpersonal support, and practical advice could be made accessible to the affected women. The comments also allow like-minded women to connect with each other,” Zhou wrote in his research paper.

Pulling back the curtain 

Companies justified the recent push to remove anonymity by citing the need to hold influential social media personalities accountable. In October, Weibo posted: “To regulate the operation and management of ‘self-media’ accounts and to enable more convenient public oversight for the purpose of the collective interests, the platform will shortly begin instructing leading accounts to display their real name on the front end.” Almost all other social media platforms posted similar notices with wording almost identical to Weibo’s—a not-so-subtle indication that this was a clearly coordinated move in response to the government.

This came at the same time that the government started to take a strong stance against the online harassment that has resulted in several high-profile suicides over the past year. In July, the Chinese Cyberspace Administration drafted a regulation against cyberbullying, banning online forums that “post inappropriate content through anonymous submission and online call-outs.”

But the idea that displaying more personal information will curb online harassment is a long shot, as another recent rule change shows us. 

In May 2022, Weibo started requiring every post to show the IP location of the user. It’s not a precise location, but it’s accurate to the Chinese province or, if overseas, the country where the user is. Other platforms followed suit, and the government made the feature an official requirement last summer.

Over the past year and a half, users in China have gotten used to frequently commenting on one another’s locations. Sometimes it’s harmless bickering, like saying a particularly off-color comment brings shame to an entire province. Other times stereotypes, like that people from certain provinces are less well-off or less educated, are casually thrown around. And political comments from an overseas IP address are often automatically deemed the result of foreign influence and the poster is attacked.

Including this new tag “ended up providing a new target for the bullies: geographical locations,” Yan Feng, a professor of Chinese literature at Fudan University, wrote in October on his Weibo account. 

He’s used his real name on social media for 13 years, and explained that he understood firsthand how this gave his attackers a clear target and more ammunition. “Displaying real names will reduce some cyberbullying, but it will empower and strengthen new forms of cyberbullying, plus it will significantly reduce the freedom of expression,” Yan wrote. “How to choose? I choose the right for everyone to opt for real name or anonymity.”

The focus on cyberbullying is certainly not the government’s real motivation for the change, says Zhou, the University of Illinois researcher.

In 2022, right after the change about IP location was announced, Zhou surveyed over 500 Weibo users to understand the practice of self-censorship online. Nearly half of them reported that having their real location displayed would encourage them to self-censor more. And that may be just what Beijing really intended.

“It’s ironic … because the government’s persecution is so much more powerful than people attacking each other,” Zhou says. “Now the Chinese government is shifting people’s attention to these infights, as if the antisocial behavior of a small group of people is so concerning that it needs to be regulated with the tool of de-anonymization.”

“Teacher Li” was an anonymous account last year during the White Paper protests against China’s strict zero-covid policies. The account tweeted out hundreds of protest videos that were submitted to it anonymously by people in China who were afraid to speak out. 

Behind the account is Li Ying, a Chinese artist turned dissident who was able to remain relatively anonymous during the period. “We’ve been used to anonymity since we were young. We can come up with a cool alias or pretend to be a powerful figure. Anonymity is a part of the internet culture,” he says. “We can’t change what’s our name or how we look, but we can decide who we are online.”

When I talked to him late last year, he asked me not to use his real name to protect his safety and that of his family. But that all changed a few days later when Fang Shimin, another Chinese dissident, publicly posted Li’s real name on Twitter and questioned whether he had a team behind him or, worse, whether he was secretly working on behalf of the Chinese government. Now, both the powerful Chinese government and random people who don’t agree with his political views can weaponize his identity. 

Because of his influence, Li has experienced even more intense consequences from losing his anonymity. He has moved several times and lost his job because his identity was revealed. 

“Real names displayed on the front end can expose you in front of the public,” Li says. “There are a lot of things the public can do, and the blood is no longer on the government’s hands … It’s an infight among the public.”

What will happen now?

The October announcement of the real-name rule freaked out many social media users. Some people decided to delete their accounts immediately, Rest of World reported—like Kindergarten Killer, an anonymous rapper who refuses to let people know what he looks like. Others removed hundreds of thousands of followers to put them below the threshold for now.

The enforcement of the rule has been slow and murky. While some Weibo influencers already have their names displayed, many others with more than 500,000 followers still don’t. To accounts with both large and small followings, the question is when it will really come for them. 

“It only impacts some big-name influencers now, but I think everyone will have to display their real name in the future,” says Zhou. 

“How to choose? I choose the right for everyone to opt for real name or anonymity.”

The IP location feature is an example of how these seemingly small-scale changes can expand and normalize over time. In the beginning, a user’s location was only shown in posts discussing the pandemic or the Russia-Ukraine war, as platforms and the government alleged that these were the areas where some people were posting under foreign influence. But soon, the function spread to all types of content, all users, and all platforms. Today, people seem to feel as if IP location disclosure has always been the norm.

In the face of these changes, some users are taking a more creative approach to online anonymity. I started to notice it earlier this year, with what I thought was a weird trend on Chinese social platforms like Douban and Xiaohongshu: thousands of people using the same pink cartoon dinosaur as their profile picture and “Momo” as their username. 

Momo, it turns out, used to be the default profile picture when people used their WeChat login to access other platforms. These people decided to keep it as their shared identity and blend into the crowd.

At first I thought this would be one of those quirky trends, going viral for a while before dying out as quickly. But it has lived much longer than I expected. In August 2022, the online group that pioneered the trend had only 485 members. Today, it has over 12,000. Just this month, when I posted online about looking for a ride for a coming trip, one of the Momos replied and offered to help.

Can being a Momo offer complete anonymity? Obviously not. Even if your real name isn’t displayed, you need to use it to register on the platform. And even if you choose the same name and profile photo, the platform still assigns a unique identifier number to each account, which in turn differentiates each Momo from the others.

Maybe that little bit of extra privacy—the pseudonymous state that Momos want, as noted in their “group rule” from last year—is enough to quell their anxieties about being found online. It’s doubtful, though, that they will be able to keep the Momo identity when, as most people expect, the rule requiring influencers to use their real name spreads. 

Chinese users may not even be able to have other people post for them anymore.  

Qiaomai, the feminist writer who shared thousands of follower submissions anonymously, had her Weibo account suspended in July for unknown reasons. Her new account has mostly shared only her own thoughts. (Zhou, who used his Weibo account to send out surveys about self-censorship, also had his account suspended without explanation.) 

Weibo didn’t immediately respond to MIT Technology Review’s request for comments.

With these accounts gone, lively discussions and the collision of ideas have gone with them. And the internet where everyone uses their real name will inevitably be more rigid and intimidating, not to mention easier for the people with power to control.

Li Ying still posts under the name Teacher Li, even though his real name has been exposed. He still accepts user submissions about news in China and shares them with his more than 1.4 million followers on X. 

But to read his posts, people in China have to find a VPN service to go around the Great Firewall. His accounts on Chinese social media have all been suspended, and he receives harassment attached to his real name almost daily on platforms like X. While some of this seems to be from coordinated bot posts, other attacks come from random people who seem to disagree with him politically. 

“It doesn’t mean much to me anymore,” Li tells me. “I’ve been through the White Paper protest [and the attack after it]. Nothing can be worse than that. But for many ordinary people, they would deactivate their account once they were doxxed.” 

I ask him if he’d rather go back to being anonymous on the internet.

“If I had a choice to go all the way back in time,” Li answers, “of course.”

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