If They Censor it, Will WeChat?
In July of 2013 the twitter-like microblog site Weibo experienced a 70% decrease in traffic over the course of a few days. This massive exodus was the result of a progression of government policies aimed at discouraging online rumors and decreasing the amount of dangerous (read: interesting) content available on the service. The Telegraph presented a nice infographic that showed government actions and the Weibo usage of a representative sample of 1.6 million users.
The peak usage occurred just before the government announced a policy that required users to post with their real names in March 2012, and the slide continued through June, when the government began arresting hundreds of people for spreading rumors, forcing celebrities to leave the service, and limiting the number of times that something that is not true can be reposted before the original poster can face prison time. Many dedicated users of Weibo switched to the newer, less public Weixin, which faced fewer regulations.
If this set of provisions sounds strangely familiar, it is probably because Weixin, or WeChat, has just come face to face with a nearly identical set of regulations. Xinhua announced the new regulations on August 7th (Chinese link), which include the familiar aspects of requiring users to register their real names, requiring certain privileges to post political news, and instituting punishments for those who post or share “rumors”.
Just days later, a search for WeChat on Google news almost exclusively returned articles about how Tencent’s (WeChat’s parent company) second quarter net profits grew by 59%, and stock prices were up, mostly on the strength of growth in the number of WeChat users. This doesn’t seem to fit with the example that Weibo provides. Here are the main differences between the conditions that Weibo faced last year and those faced by WeChat currently:
1) There’s no convenient alternative
Last year Weibo users flocked to the rapidly growing and largely unregulated WeChat. WeChat users don’t have that option—the new regulations apply to all instant messaging programs. Additionally, the government has blocked access to foreign competitors who are more difficult to regulate: Line and KakaoTalk (Korean programs that are functionally very similar to WeChat).
2) It is still early in the crackdown on WeChat and other messaging applications
It took nearly a year for Weibo to go from the use of real names to the decline in use of July 2013. Indications are that this time the regulations are moving faster—the August 7th regulations included components that reflect the later stages of the Weibo crackdown—but it took some high profile arrests to really induce people to leave Weibo.
3) Many WeChat users are unaware or minimally affected by the changes.
If Weibo is the Chinese twitter, WeChat is more like the Chinese Facebook/Whatsapp. Preventing the spread of a good portion of the news on Weibo destroyed many peoples’ reasons for reading or posting there. This is less true of WeChat, which leverages its function as a private messaging application. The new regulations prevent most users from sharing any “political news”, the jury is still out on how that will affect most users, and how strictly that piece of the protocol will be enforced.
4) The parent companies of these programs don’t suffer immediately (if at all)
The two following charts, taken from Yahoo Finance, show stock prices for Sina and Tencent, the two parent companies of Weibo and WeChat:
Above are graphs of Sina’s stock prices (regulation occurred in July 2013) and Tencent’s Stock prices (regulation occurred in August 2013) for the same time period. Sina’s stock price clearly didn’t suffer from the decrease in use from the top users displayed in the chart from the Telegraph above, and it is likely that Tencent’s stocks will not suffer either (particularly with their huge second quarter profits). However, Weibo’s stock prices did eventually drop with the announcement of a net decrease in users at the beginning of 2014. It seems plausible that the decrease in political content eventually caused people to stop signing up for the service.
What does this mean for WeChat’s future?
In the short-term, very little. WeChat’s numbers will likely continue to grow as the app becomes more and more popular among Chinese and foreign users. However, if the Chinese government decides to crack down on some high profile users for writing or sharing the wrong type of news, it could affect the total number of users in the long-run and hurt the company. Until then, people will probably not change their online behavior. Indeed, among the Chinese people that I spoke to about the recent changes, only one of them was familiar with the new guidelines. Comment below to tell us what you think about the new regulations and how they will affect internet users.
Featured photo by Luke Sanford.