Wed, May 29, 2019 - Page 9 News List

China’s robot censors crank up as Tiananmen anniversary nears

By Cate Cadell  /  Reuters, BEIJING

It is the most sensitive day of the year for China’s Internet, the anniversary of the bloody June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, and with under two weeks to go, China’s robot censors are working overtime.

Censors at Chinese Internet companies say tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown have reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning, and voice and image recognition.

“We sometimes say that the artificial intelligence [AI] is a scalpel, and a human is a machete,” said one content screening employee at Beijing Bytedance Co, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Two employees at the firm said censorship of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, along with other highly sensitive issues including Taiwan and Tibet, is now largely automated.

Posts that allude to dates, images and names associated with the protests are automatically rejected.

“When I first began this kind of work four years ago there was opportunity to remove the images of Tiananmen, but now the artificial intelligence is very accurate,” one of the people said.

Four censors, working across Bytedance, Weibo Corp and Baidu apps, said they censor between 5,000 and 10,000 pieces of information a day, or five to seven pieces a minute, most of which they said were pornographic or violent content.

Despite advances in AI censorship, current-day tourist snaps in the square are sometimes unintentionally blocked, one of the censors said.

Bytedance declined to comment, while Weibo and Baidu did not respond to requests for comment.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre is a taboo subject in China 30 years after the government sent tanks to quell student-led protests calling for democratic reforms. Beijing has never released a death toll, but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.

June 4 itself is marked by a cat-and-mouse game as people use more and more obscure references on social media sites, with obvious allusions blocked immediately. In some years, even the word “today” has been scrubbed.

In 2012, China’s most-watched stock index fell 64.89 points on the anniversary, echoing the date of the original event in what analysts said was likely a strange coincidence rather than a deliberate reference.

Still, censors blocked access to the term “Shanghai stock market” and to the index numbers themselves on microblogs, along with other obscure references to sensitive issues.

While censorship tools are becoming more refined, analysts, academics and users say heavy-handed policies mean sensitive periods before anniversaries and political events have become catch-alls for a wide range of sensitive content.

In the buildup to this year’s Tiananmen Square Massacre anniversary, censorship on social media has targeted LGBT groups, labor and environmental activists, and non-governmental organizations, they say.

Upgrades to censorship technology have been urged on by new policies introduced by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). The group was set up — and officially led — by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), whose tenure has been defined by increasingly strict ideological control of the Internet.

The CAC did not respond to a request for comment.

In November last year, the CAC introduced new rules aimed at quashing dissent online in China, where “falsifying the history” of the Chinese Communist Party on the Internet is a punishable offense for both platforms and individuals.

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