Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, and a slew of Chinese social media apps like WeChat began publishing the IP addresses and locations of their users. The new policy was revealed as part of China’s campaign against online misinformation. The change instead intimidates Chinese citizens. Concerns continue to grow for Chinese netizens as their freedom of speech continues to be attacked.
Why Are Chinese Social Media Publishing User Locations?
The explanation from Weibo is to “limit bad behavior” on the platform. “Bad behavior” refers to users spreading “rumors” and "fake news” across the site without an official source. Often the information labelled as “fake news” is valid content that the government doesn’t want widespread. Revealing locations where users are making posts, according to Weibo, will add accountability.
Speculation is that the Chinese government implemented these changes after receiving overwhelming criticism from Shanghai’s ongoing lockdown. Supporters argue that displaying user geolocation can help people identify “suspicious information”, with the underlying assumption that news sources from non-Shanghai residents are less credible than those from local residents. At the same time, Hu Xijin, one of the most influential pro-China news commentators, expressed that sharing location data will reveal “evil foreign forces” who want to disrupt social cohesion in China.
The Hypocrisy of Displaying User Locations
Despite the reasons given by the government, there are obvious flaws with the new system that seems to be overlooked. There are 3 main issues that make the policy more problematic than most people think.
IP Addresses Aren’t Foolproof
Using IP addresses to define a user’s location is flawed. It is notoriously easy to change an IP address using a proxy, tor browser, or a VPN. IP addresses are also not perfectly accurate to a person’s true location. As a VPN provider, we know firsthand that IP addresses don’t always show the right physical location whenever a website pulls an IP address from a registry. Due to outdated IP registries, displayed locations may differ from reality.
The Double Standard
Another concern is that the new rule doesn’t apply to everyone equally. Regular users don’t have any choice but to display their IP addresses, but this doesn’t apply evenly to everyone. There are celebrities, figures of authority, such as the aforementioned Hu Xijin, that don't display their location.
The Issue with Public Relations Controlled Accounts
Within the first few days of implementation, people noticed a discrepancy with foreign celebrity accounts. The accounts of celebrities like Bill Gates, Leo Messi, and Elon Musk show that they are located in China even though they don’t operate within the nation. It’s a common practice to have a PR team to manage their Chinese social media accounts for local audiences. Even local Chinese celebrities often use a PR team in a different region, leading to the discrepancy between their IP and real location.
What Revealing Locations Actually Does
Arguably the policy encourages more people to start concealing their location data. Since the rollout, IP address spoofing became available as a service on various ecommerce sites for users to change their geolocations. Even internet users that aren’t tech-savvy can easily alter their IP address, which makes the policy virtually ineffective for stopping misinformation and “foreign interference”.
There is an ulterior motive of removing anonymity from users. The Chinese government has been actively removing any semblance of privacy for years. Since 2015, social media users have been required to use their real names and phone number which is directly tied to their national ID. The pandemic has accelerated China’s move to double down on censorship efforts. Displaying users’ IP addresses is just the latest example. With an increase of fear of reprisals, Chinese netizens are now even further away from having freedom of speech.