How WeChat became the primary news source in China

Image: kulucphr/flickr.

Editor’s note: This article is the first of two in a series on WeChat. The second, “WeChat reaches audiences conventional media in China cannot” can be found here.

Flourishing social media platforms like WeChat are changing journalism in China. In place of legacy media companies, independent influencers called Key Opinion Leaders, or KOLs, are attracting both attention and money.

In a country where information is tightly controlled by the ruling party, a voracious demand for news catered to specific interests has given way to a boom in what directly translates as “self-media”—user-generated content created by one person and inspired by the slogan “be your own media outlet.” For the savvy influencers on China’s WeChat, who include former reporters, film critics, or other industry insiders, the financial incentives to move from traditional news outlets onto WeChat and “sell” stories are substantial.

RELATED: How misinformation spreads on WeChat

“Once you have a following, [ad] agencies will find you and you will start to earn,” said former finance reporter turned public account writer Xu Yang. While the rate depends on the makeup and size of your following, in March of 2016 comedian Papi Jiang auctioned off the right to advertise on her public account for $1.86 million. Mi Meng, one of the top earners ranked by NewRank.cn—a company that scores all WeChat public accounts in terms of readership, open-rate, and other parameters—charges $75,235 per banner ad.

Tencent, WeChat’s owner, has also capitalized on the fact that the platform is the world’s most popular mobile payment system by installing a “tipping” button. If a reader likes WeChat content, they can tip the creator a small amount of money with one click. WeChat columnist He Caitou said earlier in 2017 that on average he receives $602 per article, and once received $4,815 for a short piece he wrote. He used to get paid $75 per thousand-words by magazines. Tencent announced earlier this year that it will also soon roll out a “pay to read” function where readers will directly pay for content on their phones.

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Now, legacy media and self-media are converging. Newspapers have started publishing via WeChat public accounts—six of the top 10 accounts are operated by legacy media outlets—and KOLs are becoming media companies themselves with millions in venture capital and teams of content creators behind each public account. Thirty-three teams of content creators raised over $15 million in 2016 alone, according to a 2016 report by the new media research firm WeMedia. With the popularization of live streaming and podcasting, the format of self-media is increasingly diversified.

Meanwhile, the censors are catching up. In October, China’s internet authorities banned social media from allowing users to register anonymously. All online speech can now be traced to the ID number of any citizen. This past September, a new regulation makes account administrators responsible—and even criminally liable—for censoring and removing sensitive speech in any group chat. With the help of technology like AI, the state can censor WeChat content just as easily as print.

RELATED: WeChat reaches audiences conventional media in China cannot

On the bright side, as Tencent gears up to offer a “pay-to-read” function, many industry observers are hoping this new business model will raise the quality of journalism by providing more funding and lowering the reliance on hits and shares. Others worry that this will create another socioeconomic divide, leaving those disadvantaged less informed.

 

Before the reform launched by Ding Xiaoping in the late ‘80s, the only organization in China allowed to gather information was the official Xinhua News Agency, established in 1931 by the Communist Party well before it took control of the country in 1949. Doubling as an intelligence agency, Xinhua would report to the party leadership, whose members would select a small portion of the news deemed safe for the public and authorize its publishing in a handful of newspapers. Those outlets, such as China Daily, People’s Daily, and China Central Television, were entirely funded by the state and tasked with acting as mouthpieces for the party.

During Xiaoping’s market economy reform in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, many state news outlets were cut off from state funding and therefore forced to establish a for-profit arm to pay the bills. Media-savvy investors started new outlets with the hope of high returns. A marketplace for commercial media took shape. Although in-house sensors still had to sign off on every page before it went to print, commercial outlets had more room to pursue stories they deemed important for their readers. Operating within the narrow bounds of censorship, publications like Southern Weekend and Caijing did their own reporting and paid their bills through advertising and subscription fees.

With the digital revolution, news outlets switched from publishing in print to online. This gave rise to the first generation of self-media, which saw individuals begin to publish blogs, podcasts, and Weibo posts (China’s Twitter-like micro-blog). However, since most were unable to grow their readership to critical sizes necessary to make a living, the activity remained a hobby. Thought leaders stayed at established media outlets for lack of better prospects, and media consumers stayed with them.

All that changed with the deeper digital revolution from desktop to mobile phones. According to the China Internet Network Information Center, China is home to 724 million mobile internet users, more than half of its 1.4 billion population. China has more smartphone users than the US, Brazil, and Indonesia combined.

On top of that, China’s mobile users spend a lot of time reading news on their smart devices. According to Tencent, the messaging platform had 938 million monthly, active users in the first quarter of 2017 (not all of them residing in China). Of those users, 34.6 percent spend over four hours per day on the app. Over half of them say the main reason they use WeChat is to get the news.

Over half of active users say the main reason they use WeChat is to get the news.

“Mobile devices became a main channel for netizens to read news, and information explosion and fragmentation brought by the development of mobile Internet accelerated netizens’ demand for individualized and vertical news,” reads the Statistical Report on Internet Development in China published by CNNIC in July 2016.

This tidal wave of demand proved to be revolutionary for the news industry. The massive readership of mobile platforms attracted  advertising dollars, which incentivized digital platforms such as WeChat, Zhihu, and Weibo to compete for top content providers. The trend has only grown as more money floods the platforms: the number of advertisers on WeChat more than doubled between late 2015 and early 2016.

While tipping is especially important for public accounts that don’t have a large readership but do have a high-quality and loyal following, said Qiao Mu, a dissident media scholar who used to receive a few hundred dollars for essays he posted on his WeChat accounts before they were blocked by censors, there are other ways to cash in. KOLs can write advertorial content for brands or sell products directly by embedding a click-to-buy button in their articles. The latter works especially well with middle-aged, professional men. “They don’t want to go to a store. They want to click a button and have things delivered right to their doorsteps the next day—the buying process is absolutely frictionless,” Yang said after working with a brand of wine. “As a KOL, you are saying: buy this if you trust me, and they do.”

 

All legacy media in China, state or commercial, are heavily and closely censored pre-publishing, and filled with propaganda. Censors sitting in high offices in every news organization must sign off on every tabloid, broadsheet, and video clip before it goes to print or on air.  

China’s media landscape is constantly shaped by the tension between the state trying to control what information is available to the public, and the public trying to find unfiltered, trustworthy sources of information. Legacy media outlets don’t have a lot of public trust to begin with. People in China have long shared a preference for “overheard on the street” and leaked reports.

This tension pushes readers to self-media, where KOLs cultivate an air of “insider information.” Many often put “read this before it gets censored” in the headline. “If you look at popular content in the early days (of WeChat), it all looked like some underground publication,” said Saisai. “When we train new writers, we tell them to imagine they are chatting with the readers on the side of the street, not broadcasting to the masses.”

China’s media landscape is constantly shaped by the tension between state control of information and the public trying to find unfiltered, trustworthy sources.

However, that is mostly an illusion. In reality, WeChat’s censorship mechanism has improved considerably from simple keyword screenings to a combination of sophisticated tools such as big data and artificial intelligence. Mu, who has had 18 accounts censored, marveled at how effective it is. “If you type the word ‘Tian’anmen,’ WeChat can tell if you intend to praise its beauty or talk about the ‘incident’ in 1989,” he said. He also suspected that the algorithm takes into account who is posting, since essays his account couldn’t publish would get published by other accounts with no prior offenses or that were deemed politically reliable.

There’s also economic disincentive to disobey the censors. Tencent holds all tipping revenue for seven days before transferring to the writer’s account. If the content gets censored before then, the income is sent back. In severe cases, KOLs can see their accounts suspended or shut down forever. “I’ve invested a lot into my public accounts and I had a steady following and income,” said Mu, who was demoted to a university librarian for being outspoken in 2014. “Once it gets deleted, it takes a lot to gain them all back.”

The lack of political representation in China also works in WeChat’s favor. All politics are conducted by the party, so normal citizens rarely know what’s on the agenda. Even it they do, there’s no opportunity to change it. As a result, most citizens only care about issues of immediate interest to their lives. For example, many Chinese people ignored President Trump’s November visit to China and instead tuned into a scandal where kindergarten teachers in Shanghai were accused of using abusive methods to discipline kids.

WeChat operates perfectly in this paradigm. If an issue doesn’t affect you or your friends, it has no chance of getting onto your news feed.

Saisai sums up the narrow interests of WeChat readers with something she dubs “the three friends phenomenon.” “All they need is three friends to tell them what to read, to watch, and to buy,” she said, “and the WeChat news stream is perfect for that.”

 

It is tempting to see the WeChat platform as beneficial to news dissemination in a country that has never had a free market for ideas. As we’ve seen with other social media platforms such as Facebook, WeChat has both made “populist” news more accessible while contributing to news polarization and deterioration in the quality of what’s now considered journalism.

Meanwhile, Chinese publishing laws and regulations dictate that all reporters must be licensed to work. Licenses are only given to reporters at traditional media outlets credentialed by the state. Digital media are very much still in a legal gray zone and operating as unregulated. Technically, no internet media can legally conduct original reporting; it can only aggregate. Much of the work done by KOLs involves scouring small papers for stories, writing commentaries, or repackaging them.

During this process of repackaging, under pressure to maximize the number of hits and shares while unable to do further reporting, KOLs often choose to appeal to emotion rather than reason.

“You have to learn the pain points of your readers,” said Yang, “For example, if your audience is professional women who feel guilty about not doing enough for their children’s education, come May, you should look for stories like ‘this mom sent her child to a 300,000 yuan summer camp.’ ”

Different accounts catering to groups across the socioeconomic spectrum may also choose to accentuate a different set of details in a story, making dialogue across socioeconomic lines difficult. When a fire killed 19 migrant workers living in a shantytown on the outskirts of Beijing in November, public accounts read by wealthy, downtown residents emphasized the fact that the migrant workers didn’t comply with fire codes, while neglecting to mention that they were herded out by a campaign to drive migrants out of the capital.

The need to maximize shares also gave rise to a type of story that Mu calls “social anesthesia.” After a tragedy like Li Wenxing’s death (detailed in an article accompanying this one) or the fire outside of Beijing, members of the community feel the pain but can’t do anything, as they are forbidden from organizing and don’t have political representation. Public accounts would write “feel-good” commentaries along the lines of “accidents happen all the time” or “such things numb the pain,” said Mu.

These commentaries, in sum, actually breed political apathy. It’s safe to say that the Chinese readers are never going back to print again, but it is unclear what they have gained by trading print newspapers for a small, rectangular screen. Certainly not freedom of information, but maybe higher-quality content (with some journalistic rigor) is on the horizon.

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Mia Shuang Li is formerly a Beijing-based Chinese reporter and a researcher for the Beijing Bureau of the New York Times from 2011 to 2016. She is currently pursuing a masters degree at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.