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China's robot censors are spinning as the Tiananmen Jubilee approaches

PEKING (Reuters) – It's the most sensitive day of the year for China's Internet, the anniversary of the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square democracy protests on June 4, and China's robot censors are working in less than two weeks Over time.

People photograph paramilitary officers marching in formation on Tiananmen Square in Beijing (China) on May 16, 2019. Unparalleled accuracy through machine learning and speech and image recognition.

"We sometimes say that artificial intelligence is a scalpel and a human is a machete," said a staff member at Beijing Bytedance Co Ltd, who asked not to be identified because he was not allowed to use media to speak.

Two employees of the company said that censorship of the Tiananmen and other highly sensitive issues such as Taiwan and Tibet has become largely automated.

Posts that reference data, images, and names associated with the protests are automatically rejected.

"When I started doing this kind of work four years ago, there was an opportunity to remove the Tiananmen pictures, but now artificial intelligence is very accurate," one of the people said.

Four censors working with Bytedance, Weibo Corp and Baidu Inc apps claim to censor between 5,000 and 10,000 pieces of information per day or five to seven pieces of information per minute, most of which were pornographic or violent content.

Despite advances in AI censorship today's tourist shots on the square are sometimes inadvertently blocked, one of the censors said.

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


Tiananmen's action is taboo in China, 30 years after the government sent tanks to suppress student-led protests and demand democratic reform. Beijing has never claimed casualties, but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.

The 4th of June itself is characterized by a cat-and-mouse game, as users on social media sites use more and more obscure references and obvious allusions are immediately blocked. In a few years even the word "today" was scrubbed.

In 2012, the most-watched Chinese stock index fell 64.89 points on the anniversary date, reflecting the date of the original event, which, analysts said, was a strange coincidence rather than a deliberate clue.

Nonetheless, censors blocked access to the term "Shanghai Stock Market" and index numbers even in microblogs, along with other obscure references to sensitive topics.

As companies' censorship tools continue to be refined, analysts, scientists, and users see tough times in massive policies, before anniversaries and political events have become all-rounders of a variety of sensitive content.

In the run-up to this year's Tiananmen Square Jubilee, social media censorship was targeted at LGBT groups, environmental and labor activists and NGOs.

New policies introduced by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) have encouraged upgrades to censorship technologies. The group was founded and formally run by President Xi Jinping, whose term of office was determined by an increasingly stringent ideological control of the Internet.

The CAC did not respond to a request for a comment.

Last November, the CAC introduced new rules to quell dissent online in China, where the "counterfeiting of the Communist Party's history" on the Internet is punishable for both platforms and individuals.

The new rules require assessment reports and site visits to any Internet platform that can be used for "social mobilization" or "significant changes in public opinion," including access to real names, network addresses, usage times and chat logs and call logs ,

An official working for CAC told Reuters that the recent rise in online censorship is "very likely" in the context of the upcoming anniversary.

"There is constant communication with companies during this time," said the official, who refused to speak directly about the Tiananmen, referring to the "sensitive time in June" instead.

Companies largely responsible for their own censorship receive few directives from the CAC, but are responsible for creating guidelines in their own "internal ethics and party departments," the official said.


Xi's increasing influence on the Internet has centralized the flow of information within the Communist Party's propaganda department and state media network. According to censors and employees of the company, this reduces the pressure to censor some events, including important political news, natural disasters and diplomatic visits.

"When it comes to news, the rule is simple … Unless it comes from state media first, it's unauthorized, especially in terms of leaders and political issues," said a Baidu employee.

"We have a basic list of keywords that contain the details of 1989, but (AI) can more easily select them."

The penalty for not properly censoring the content can be severe.

Over the last six weeks, popular services, including a Netease Inc news app, the TianTian news app from Tencent Holdings Ltd and Sina Corp., have been suspended from days to weeks, which, according to CAC, means that services are being provided temporarily will be unavailable in apps stores and online.

For Internet users and activists, fines can be imposed, including imprisonment, when information about sensitive events is disseminated online.

In China, social media accounts are legally linked to real names and national ID numbers, and companies are required by law to provide user information to government agencies upon request.

"It has become normal to know things and understand that they can not be shared," said one user, Andrew Hu. "These are secret facts."

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In 2015, Hu spent three days in his Inner Mongolian homeland in custody after he had published a comment on air pollution on an independent painting on Tiananmen's action on the Twitter-like social media site Weibo.

Hu, who refused to use his full Chinese name to avoid further violations, said when police officers came to his parents while he was on leave for work in Beijing, he was surprised but not shocked.

"Competent authorities and Internet users are equally confused," said Hu. "Even though enforcement is erratic, they know it's easy to increase pressure."

Reporting by Cate Cadell. Edited by Lincoln Feast.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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