Once in a while we feel compelled to post on a more deeper issue related to entertainment. This is one that’s been bothering me for years. All opinions are by me and do not represent the website as a whole. Please feel free to post other proofs or examples you see, and correct any errors.
Imagine if which news you read was purely dependent on how much someone paid the newspaper. What if that newspaper was also your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?
Microblogging platform Sina Weibo is one of the world’s top source for information. Yet without regulation, this means a world where Sina is able to highlight its own news sources (or that of anyone who pays them) in all searches and tags for a fifth of the world. They’re also able to make whatever hashtags or searches they want prominent.
Last month, in a new move where only a percentage of posts by those you follow will be displayed, this means they’re able to highlight or hide all posts, effectively controlling everything you see. I’ve seen this happen in several gossip scandals, where people’s Weibo posts are clearly there, but followers are unable to see them due to this mysterious “chance”.
Abuse of Dominance in News
“Monopolists are damned without further ado; they are so wicked that they deserve to be sent into perpetual exile both in this world and in the next.”
— Saint Bernardine of Siena
When a scandal breaks out and one searches for the scandal, instead of seeing the notice put by the actual person of interest or the news agency that first leaked the scandal, people instead see the Sina News’ Weibo report on it. While other news sources must delete a post to make corrections, Sina accounts has the ability to change to edit their posts. Sina is using its monopoly powers on Weibo to give unfair advantage to its business in other fields, most important of which is news. When most of China gets its news from a single commercial website whose news can easily be brought, that’s a concern beyond mere unfair competition tactics. This is especially since Internet news sources have yet been punished for not distinguishing paid advertisements in the form of news from real news.
In the U.S., the above would be a clear violation of fair competition laws and Sina would’ve been forced to split its Weibo operations with other operations per United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. But unfortunately, as China is breaking up its state monopolies in favor of private-run enterprises, it has not kept up with the West in its regulation of monopolies. Its limited fair competition laws set in place in the past decade have so far mostly been used to breakup foreign monopolies.
Because of its strength in networks (the more people using it, the more draw it has), Sina is a natural monopoly. This means that breaking it up is inefficient. However, what is unnatural is how Sina is using its natural monopoly powers to exercise unfair competition in other markets that should not be monopolies.
Consumers ordinarily expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party. Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising.
– U.S. FTC
While most print news must clearly distinguish advertisement from reporting, and Google is required to clearly note which one of its search results are ads and which ones are “natural results.” Sina is not. And while Google owns less that 60% of the search engine market share, Sina owns almost 100% of the microblogging market.
This means that Sina has a much bigger power to manipulate and deceive users into only seeing news they want you to see. It’s allowing for false advertisement on a large scale.
Imagine if Voldemort hated Dumbledore. All he would have to do is buy a search that includes “Dumbledore drug addict”. Soon, the majority of China will see that Dumbledore is somehow related to drug addiction. Even though they expect this search to be due to a result of a lot of people searching for it, in fact, the search is a paid slander campaign.
Voldemort can then buy the top Weibo results for that search so everything that comes up first are of various people bad-mouthing Dumbledore. People expect those posts to be on the top because they are either true or because people care, but again, it actually is a paid slander campaign.
And while there’s few as evil as he-who-must-not-be-named, following entertainment news on Weibo has taught me plenty of times how the above examples can be used to ruin someone with rumors or to hide the truth by buying out searches. And while I mostly used entertainment examples, you can imagine how this is a much bigger issue when it comes to social and political news.
This week, in the JYP-Tzuyu scandal, Weibo deleted a post from The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and blocked one by a CCP magazine from being seen. The latter post was only recovered after other party accounts posted proof of the missing post. If Sina is so fearless of its powers that it’s willing to use its unfair competition tactics against the government in a place like China, I think that’s clearly a sign of too much power.
What needs to be done?
So, what laws needs to be set in place? I’m no expert on anti-trust law or industrial organization, but here’s my limited take on the minimum that needs to happen to Weibo for a diverse news market in China.
- The requirement and enforcement for Sina to clearly label which searches or posts are promoted . They currently do this some what, but it’s very obvious that many top searches are brought when two completely unrelated terms that no one cares about suddenly appear as a top search, and there is no punishment set in place for Sina. The U.S. went through the same problem when social networks came into prominence and ignored similar rules set on search engines.
- The break-up of Weibo and other affiliated Sina services to prevent financial incentives for Sina to use its monopoly power in Weibo to unfairly compete in other areas. This includes Sina news, Sina music, etc.
- The requirement for the top posts on any given search or hashtag be based on a fair algorithm rather than human choice (i.e whatever is in Sina’s incentive).