Author: Kevin Schoenmakers

Kevin Schoenmakers is a Shanghai-based freelance journalist.

How China Wants to Tame Tech’s Use of Algorithms

Algorithms Are Everywhere

Kevin Schoenmakers: To start with a refresher: What are algorithms and how are they used both inside and outside of China?

Rogier Creemers: Essentially algorithms are mathematical rules that derive a product from a series of inputs. They can be static, where it’s almost like making pancakes. You need this many eggs, this much flour, this much milk, and it all combines and the output is pancake.

They can also be dynamic, and this is what we call artificial intelligence machine learning. These are algorithms that can change by looking at patterns in your behavior. They are often used online to learn about what people like in order to then make decisions about them, most often related to advertising or to content recommendations.

Spotify will know what music you’ve listened to, what other people who listened to that same music also like to listen to, and then recommend that to you. The algorithm then looks at whether or not you like that suggestion and learn from that. Similarly, in advertising, algorithms will look at what product websites you have gone to, how much time you spent there, which links you clicked, and so on. On the basis of that it will then recommend certain products to you.

Kevin Schoenmakers: In late August, the Chinese government published draft regulations for algorithms. What were some of the headline rules in those regulations?

Rogier Creemers: Essentially, they’re saying that in a number of spaces there will now be limits on what you can do with algorithms.

In the workplace, especially at parcel delivery and food delivery services, algorithms are used to monitor how people work and then optimize their efficiency. But the problem is Amazon warehouse-type practices where people are timed to the second and put under severe strain. The government doesn’t want that.

When it comes to recommending content, the regulations are partially about opening up space for propaganda authorities to be able to make sure politically desirable content is being pushed to people, not just entertainment-related content.

Another aspect is consumer protection by preventing addiction. In the West, we know how social media use algorithms to increase engagement by pushing increasingly extremist content. This can suck people down a political rabbit hole. That’s less of a concern in China, but the consumer rabbit hole is.

When it comes to recommending content, the regulations are partially about opening up space for propaganda authorities to be able to make sure politically desirable content is being pushed to people, not just entertainment-related content.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How will these regulations prevent people from overconsumption? Why is that a concern?

Rogier Creemers: The Chinese government is treading a narrow path here. One element of its economic development strategy is to broaden consumption. But it’s careful about debt build-up. Alibaba and Tencent both have financial arms and credit rating systems. They make money not just by selling their products and services, but also by facilitating loans so people have the money to buy them. There is a risk that people start buying stuff with money they do not have.

We very often forget the extent to which China looks abroad. And one of the things that it has seen, most notably in countries like the United States, is that a little bit of consumer credit is good, but that a lot of consumer credit destabilizes your economy.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Another section of the regulations say algorithms may not be used to create fake user accounts, fake likes, etc. What does that refer to?

Rogier Creemers: You can train algorithms to create a whole bunch of fake user accounts on websites, which you can then use as a sort of almost a firehose to either upvote or downvote people or companies. This can be used, for example, to vote for contestants in television talent shows or to boost the ranking of your restaurant on a review website.

Effects on Media and the State

Kevin Schoenmakers: Will these regulations affect news aggregation apps? Is there some way in which these algorithm regulations will make it easier for government departments to, for example, tell Bytedance’s news aggregation app Toutiao to push this or some other article?

Rogier Creemers: The document says algorithms should take into consideration the political quality of content. So in essence it opens that door. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a lot easier for the state to do that, because it was already fairly easy for the state to intervene. It’s just that there is now a clear and non-negotiable process.

News apps will also need to offer non-algorithm-based pages, and a way for their users to gain insight into what goes into the algorithm. What are the keywords that are part of the algorithm? How are you being tracked?

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is this the first time that China has moved to regulate algorithms? For example, I remember that Toutiao had previously been told to adjust their recommendation system.

Rogier Creemers: It is the first time that we get a comprehensive piece of regulation about algorithms. There have been rules before. For instance, the 2019 consumer protection law requires that in any case where online services were offered on an algorithmic or automated-decision basis, the consumer should have a choice to switch it off. In the same way that, on Apple, we now have a don’t-track-me option, the consumer should always have an option to not be targeted for advertising on the basis of algorithms, for example.

In the content control system, there have been both all sorts of general rules and also fairly specific limits on who gets to produce content. But we now live in an age where information is abundant. And that changes the rules. When you operate under scarcity, you operate under completely opposite constraints from when you operate under conditions of abundance. That means the whole information management landscape is no longer just about removing content from public view or producing propaganda, but also about gatekeeping and information prioritization.

There has been — and presumably still is — a constant stream of communication, often just by phone, between media organizations and propaganda authorities, and sometimes other authorities such as public security organs. They don’t just say how media organizations are supposed to deal with a particular topic, but also what content they have to prioritize.

What we’re seeing under Xi Jinping is that the Communist Party wants to — as the official term goes — comprehensively rule the country according to the law. And so they need a legal basis for all of this. This isn’t to constrain the state, but motivated by realizing centralization, discipline throughout the government bureaucracy, and a certain amount of transparency, as well as by populism.

Kevin Schoenmakers: So there are no restrictions on how the government can use algorithms, for example in facial recognition technology?

Rogier Creemers: Not in these regulations. There are limits on, say, which government departments can install them, mostly regionally. China very rarely creates general rules — rules that are going to be applied to everyone, regardless of who they are. Chinese rules are always or nearly always purpose driven, and therefore they tend to be fairly micro-managerial. In Europe, on the contrary, privacy is a fundamental right enshrined in constitutions. A European resident has the right of privacy against everyone — be it individuals, companies, or governments — because this is a rule of principle, not of purpose.

Chinese rules tend to be rules of purpose. You try to achieve a particular outcome, rather than establish a general principle. The outcome they’re trying to achieve is make the digital economy work better in response to claims by the population.

Chinese rules are always or nearly always purpose driven, and therefore they tend to be fairly micro-managerial. In Europe, on the contrary, privacy is a fundamental right enshrined in constitutions.

The Great Rectification

Kevin Schoenmakers: What are examples of the populist aspect to these regulations? What are examples of protecting consumer rights?

Rogier Creemers: Because Chinese tech companies are so powerful, sometimes even operating as monopolists in their sector, they can essentially foist conditions on consumers and on platform traders. Across the board, these regulations seek to put much more power in the hands of individual consumers and platform traders.

Unless a product or service needs the algorithm to function, you should be able to switch it off. And the company cannot then deny you the use of a product or service. You get to monitor and change the keywords on which algorithms are based.

Another aspect is competition on platforms. If I search for a particular product on Alibaba and there are 10 people offering it, the ranking of those 10 people will obviously impact their business. So how do you do that fairly?

This also ties into what we’ve been seeing with the unfair competition regulations that have been coming out where the government is telling companies they can no longer block, for example, e-commerce retailers from being active on a competitor’s platform.

The regulations also include something about price discrimination. This is referred to as “using big data to kill the mature” (大数据杀熟), which isn’t really directly translatable. It’s something that you see fairly regularly, where algorithms are used to identify a consumers’ willingness to pay. People who are new to the platform or people who have demonstrated less willingness to pay get a cheaper price for the same product as people who are more willing to pay, in a manner that isn’t transparent to the individual consumer.

The limits on how companies can use algorithms to govern workers fit into the overall drive by the Xi Jinping administration to move away from a development program of “GDP at all costs” to a more broad-based approach where the government looks out for people’s welfare, including that of ordinary people who may work as delivery drivers.

But it’s not just the content of the rules that’s important. It’s also the signal that is being sent. Beijing is telling all of these companies that the days of them being able to operate as largely unregulated monopolies or oligopolies are over. They are no longer special, and will now be treated like any other company. I call this “The Great Rectification.”

It’s no coincidence that we suddenly get the Supreme People’s Court essentially saying “996” working hours are illegal, that they have always been illegal, but that now we’re going to come down on you like a ton of bricks. There’s a substantive element to these regulations and also a performative element.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How do these regulations fit into “The Great Rectification”?

Rogier Creemers: What my Chinese interlocutors told me three, four years ago is that the Chinese government didn’t want to regulate too much out of a fear they’d smother their emerging economy. But that there would come a point where the economy is mature, where there is a lot of money, and where these companies would be robust enough to withstand regulation. And that, by that time, the government would know what it is they’d want to regulate.

And because the Chinese government regulates according to purposes and not to principles, it can actually be more agile. It can say: “This wasn’t a problem when these businesses were relatively small and serving 100 million people. Now, these businesses are really big and serving a billion people. So the game has changed, and we now need different rules to deal with this situation.”

On the one hand, you might say this is a centralized campaign. On the other hand, you might say that the stars have aligned — that political conditions are now so that it is logical for all these bureaucracies to intervene because the problems are just getting so big.

The People’s Bank of China is looking at the financial stability risks that emerge from having unregulated money creation through Ant Financial’s services. The Cyberspace Administration of China is looking at the fact that suddenly you have smart cars with lots of sensors, generating all kinds of data. And then you have a situation where if one ministry does something the others don’t want to be seen to be doing nothing.

Another aspect is that for several regulators, this is actually an opportunity to raise their profile. They can raise their bureaucratic standards, get bigger budgets, bigger staff allocations, more prestige, and so on. All of these things are factors. It’s all part of that complex witch’s brew.

Kevin Schoenmakers: I would assume that the algorithms within apps like Didi or Taobao are terribly complex. Won’t that make it difficult to enforce these regulations?

Rogier Creemers: People often assume the Chinese party state is all-powerful. And in very many ways it’s not. What is probably going to happen is that this is a sort of warning that this is what the law is going to be.

These regulations do contain punitive provisions. They are relatively light, because they have to be. Under Chinese administrative law, it is impossible for a ministry to issue rules that set a fine of more than 30,000 yuan ($4,600). For a company like Alibaba, 30,000 yuan is pocket change. The CAC might exploit a loophole by saying 30,000 yuan per infraction. So if you’ve done something that affects 10 million customers, suddenly you’re talking about a lot of money.

People often assume the Chinese party state is all-powerful. And in very many ways it’s not. What is probably going to happen is that this is a sort of warning that this is what the law is going to be.

But what I foresee is that these rules will be brought into legislation in the not-too-distant future, maybe through a revision of the consumer protection law. The Chinese government very often starts out with having rules at the ministerial level where punishments are low. That is a clear warning for companies to adjust their business practices. And then at some point, they will be brought into legislation, as we’ve seen with data protection, for instance. Then the fines and punishments can be huge.

Global Effects

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is there any in which Western tech companies will be affected by these Chinese regulations? Will LinkedIn have to make changes to how it works in China, for example?

Rogier Creemers: Probably. This is also where we need to think broadly about what a Western tech company is. Does McDonald’s count because of its delivery services?

Whenever we think about algorithms, we immediately think about the big tech companies. We’re not wrong to do so, because they cover the majority of the markets where algorithms are used. However, they are, by far, not the only players.

Airlines do price discrimination. They usually don’t do it on the basis of algorithms, but they might. So they need to demonstrate some degree of compliance, or at least that they are not breaking the rules.

There are only a few Western companies that are big in China in tech, and the only one that really offers online services is Apple. They will have to adhere to these regulations. For example, in their app store.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is the way these regulations cover so many industries a reflection of how widespread the use of algorithms has become?

Rogier Creemers: There are three big trends: “The Great Rectification,” in China, but also ongoing in Europe; “The Great Normalization,” where tech businesses are no longer special and are now being treated like normal business; and “The Great Integration.” The last of these means that whatever you want to regulate in the world — be it labor conditions, food safety, supply chain tracing, whatever it is — you’re essentially going to be regulating tech. Tech is inseparable from pretty much any economic or social process.

Once upon a time we had tech regulation and real-world regulation. Increasingly, everything is going to be tech-infused, which means that it’s going to be less and less informative to talk about tech regulation.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How do these regulations compare internationally? Are there similar regulations in Europe or in other countries?

Rogier Creemers: Yes, there are, and more are coming. Not in the United States. That’s where the tech companies are, and that’s where they strongly believe in having unregulated monopolies. That may change in the future. But that’s not really where the action is. The action at the moment in the U.S. is more on anti-trust and on Section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act], which says social media providers cannot be seen as publishers, and therefore bear no editorial responsibility.

In many ways, what the European Union is trying to do, especially in terms of consumer protection, is not far removed from what China is trying to do.

A couple of years ago, the European Union issued a whole bunch of rules on online consumer protections, and algorithms are part of those rules already. But what we’re seeing in the digital markets and services package that’s working its way through the Brussels legislative process, is that there’s going to be a lot more.

In many ways, what the European Union is trying to do, especially in terms of consumer protection, is not far removed from what China is trying to do. And the reason for that is that it’s the same problem, and there are only so many different possible solutions.

The Juggling Act of Being Female, Chinese, and a Foreign Correspondent

Bridging the European Knowledge Gap

Kevin Schoenmakers: How did you become a correspondent in Europe?

Wang Qing: I want to help China and the rest of the world understand each other better. After I graduated from a master’s program in the Netherlands, I first worked for a Dutch outlet where I basically explained China to foreigners. Then, in 2016, Trump’s election and Brexit happened. These two events had a major impact on young people, intellectuals, and other liberal-minded folk in China. As I’m sure young people in Europe did too, they suddenly began to wonder whether these are things that ought to happen in Western democratic systems. I was shocked too, and decided to switch my career direction to instead explain the West to Chinese people.

Before, Chinese people of my generation — born in the 1980s and ‘90s — would have a certain yearning for Western political systems. We’d respect them, and think that China could learn a lot from them. But after these two events, I sensed a general disappointment among Chinese intellectuals. At the time, I’d lived in Europe for five years. I knew that the American election and the Brexit referendum are just two forms of democracy, and that there are so many other versions. In France, for example, the far-right Le Pens have been active in politics for many years, but never made it to the presidency. Then there’s the German system, and the still different systems in eastern European countries.

I realized at the time that there are so few news reports about Europe in China, especially compared to how much we do hear about the United States. If a Chinese journalist is stationed abroad, then the chances are they’ll be in the U.S. Chinese people are more interested in America, and more people of Chinese descent live there. So there’s a long history of Chinese people writing about the U.S. And even though it’s a big place, people speak English, so a journalist can cover the entire country. But Europe is a different story. I felt like there was a big information gap.

Chinese readers are interested in Europe, but not that interested. They know some things about Europe, but also not a lot. So I figured I could become a kind of pan-European correspondent, writing from the perspective of a Chinese person living in Europe and explaining to a Chinese audience what I see and experience, and what European society is like. That’s how I ended up doing what I do now.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How does your outlet define your beat?

Wang Qing: My title is Europe correspondent. One part is covering large political and economic events. Another is to report on Chinese-European interactions, including diplomatic ties but also Chinese diaspora, Chinese overseas students, and Chinese people working in Europe.

In short, I write about European stories important to Europeans, and European stories important to Chinese people. These two sometimes overlap but they’re not always the same.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How do you keep up with the news of an entire continent? How many countries do you officially cover?

Wang Qing: In theory, I cover all of Europe, but that’s not really feasible in reality. The European Union has more than 20 member states by itself, and then there are non-members at the edges of the continent. So I cover more than 30 countries, which sounds kind of ridiculous. But, first of all, I’m not by myself. We have an editorial team in China doing remote reporting, and a network of freelancers around Europe. So sometimes when there’s some breaking news or something worth covering, it’s my job to commission an article.

When I cover something, my philosophy is to provide a pan-european perspective, which means I don’t just look at what happened in a particular European country, but also why those events are important to the continent. Some international outlets might have the resources to have one correspondent per country, allowing that journalist to have a deep understanding of that country. But there is no way I’ll be able to do that. I can’t master more than 20 languages in my lifetime. But I could look at these countries using a pan-European framework. This way, regardless of whether I’m writing about Germany, France, or the U.K., I can explain to Chinese readers what Europe is.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Are there any stories you would personally like to do but that you can’t get approval for from your editors?

Wang Qing: I work in a commercial outlet, so we have slightly more leeway than official state media. The limit is more often how much my organization is willing to invest in a particular pitch. Sometimes it’s not that you want to write something but can’t, it’s that you reported on something and want to follow-up with a more in-depth article, but that the organization doesn’t have the time and resources. In my impression, this is more likely the case when it comes to smaller European countries.  There might be something interesting happening there, but Chinese readers might not know the country that well so there’s only scope for something short.

Of course, besides that, there are some sensitive topics when it comes to international relations that a Chinese outlet will be very careful with.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Because of the pandemic you’ve been in China for some months and you’ve been writing more about domestic topics. Have you noticed any difference in sensitivity of national and international news? Do you run into such issues less when reporting on other countries compared to reporting on China?

Wang Qing: When I speak with friends who also work in international news, many say they initially wanted to move in this direction because there are fewer restrictions. As long as the news is unrelated to China, you can mostly write whatever you want. But if a topic touches on China, there will be restrictions.

As for domestic news, I don’t do investigatives stories but write mostly about social and cultural issues, and there aren’t usually tight restrictions on such topics.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How many Chinese journalists are there in Europe? How many of them are, like you, correspondents for commercial media?

Wang Qing: I’ve never seen an accurate figure for this, but I’d say that there are fewer than 10 Europe correspondents who work for commercial Chinese media. The overwhelming majority of Chinese journalists in Europe work for state media. They have enormous teams. I’d estimate that more than ten state media outlets have offices in Brussels, for example. Some of those might just have one or two people, others have dozens.

At the same time, the number of correspondents for commercial media is shrinking, and most of them are financial reporters who live in London. On the European mainland there are a few in Paris and in Berlin, but they might not all be on full-time contracts.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Why is the number of correspondents working for commercial media shrinking?

Wang Qing: On the one hand, state media have grown bigger both at home and abroad, and there is less space for commercial media. In the past, such media could do hard-core investigative reporting, but now that’s gotten harder.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting the rise of self-media in China. I believe the difference between state media and commercial media has gotten smaller in recent years, and the new division in the Chinese media landscape is that between self-media and institutional media — which includes both state media and commercial media. Self-media means people or organizations who most commonly post content on social media like WeChat, Weibo, and Douyin, and who are increasingly blurring the line with writing news. They adhere to different standards though. When they write about Europe, they might find a few articles in English media, aggregate them, and write it up in a dramatic and eye-catching way. Self-media have quickly gained a lot of traffic, influence, as well as advertisement. But institutional media can’t work like this.

Commercial media have also experienced a brain drain, and advertising revenue is declining every year. They’re fighting for survival. So the disappearance of correspondent positions at commercial media is a reflection of their crisis at home.

In the past, such media could do hard-core investigative reporting, but now that’s gotten harder and harder.

Growing Mistrust and Hostility

Kevin Schoenmakers: Have you noticed anything from the worsening China-West relations? For example, in China many western journalists say it’s becoming more difficult to find interviewees. Have you noticed anything similar?

Wang Qing: In general, my experiences in Europe have been positive. European society has better civic education, so people understand the importance of news media. But there have been a few incidents in the past two years. Sometimes people refuse to be interviewed because I’m a Chinese journalist, even saying, “I can’t trust a journalist from a Chinese news outlet.” Explaining the reporting you do or the kind of organization you work for won’t put them at ease.

When I first started as a reporter in Europe about eight years ago, I was never refused an interview because I’m a Chinese journalist. It might be because there is much more China coverage in Western media now. In the past only people in the so-called China-watching community would pay attention to the country, but now regular people in the West are also increasingly interested in China. But their interest was piqued by negative news stories. It’s not because, for example, they traveled to China and thought it was a fascinating place.

Hostility toward China is on the rise in both the United States and Europe. People like us, whose role is in between China and other countries, will notice such changes the earliest.

Kevin Schoenmakers: What kind of people will sometimes deny your interview requests? Just regular people, or companies and governments?

Wang Qing: All three you mentioned will sometimes deny interview requests, but people at companies or governments have received PR training so they won’t directly tell you it’s because you’re from a Chinese media outlet. Only regular people will.

I can think of an example of when I went to Greece to do a story about China buying a port there. Because the port itself is considered a scenic spot, someone offered tours on AirBnB. I thought this was very interesting, also because it mentioned China. So I wanted to join the tour and interview the person behind it. But because I explained who I was he didn’t even allow me to join the tour, saying that he thought Chinese media would distort his words.

The opposite also happens. When I went to report on Brexit I discovered a lot of English people who supported Brexit were eager to talk to Chinese media. They figured that after Brexit, the U.K. would need to become friends with countries outside the European Union and that China would be a good country to be friends with, so they were willing to speak with Chinese media.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Do interviewees sometimes question your motives because they assume your outlet is a propaganda outlet?

Wang Qing: Yes! The international perception of Chinese journalists has changed a lot in the past two years. I often get asked what it’s like to be one. I think, in the English-speaking world, there is a subtle bias toward Chinese journalists, where people assume that you need to create propaganda. But Chinese journalists are a varied group of people, including more and more Chinese nationals now working for international media. I have some friends who work for official state media, and their work isn’t all propaganda either. Within the limits placed on them, they too do work that I think improves Chinese and Western people’s mutual understanding.

Chinese journalists aren’t so different from journalists in other parts of the world. The motivations they have and the training they receive are broadly similar. But I do think they are treated differently. A South Korean reporter, for example, is much more easily trusted in the West than a Chinese reporter, even if the articles they end up writing are broadly similar.

Kevin Schoenmakers: And, the other way around, has the perception of Europe changed among your readers?

Wang Qing: First of all, Chinese people’s interest in Europe is not as great as their interest in the United States. Then, their perception of Europe is split into two. They look up to Europe but also look down on it, and these two contradictory viewpoints exist at the same time.

They want to see the good sides of Europe and regard it as having a more advanced market, governance, and society that China should learn from. This includes things such as Europe’s education, health care, and pension systems. Recently, China allowed three children per couple, but young people in China don’t really want to have children and people wonder why that is. Perhaps Chinese society doesn’t support and subsidize women and families enough when it comes to having children? So people look to Europe to see what they do. What kind of welfare do single-parent families receive, for example? How do governments support sending children to day care or to school? Chinese people are very interested in this aspect of Europe.

One the other hand, Chinese people look down on Europe, thinking that even though Europe was very civilized and advanced in the past, it has more recently been plagued by terrorist attacks, refugee crises, demonstrations, riots, and other chaos — casual readers love to read this kind of news. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, this second perception has become stronger. Many believe that China controlled the pandemic better than Europe, where it caused a lot of chaos. People increasingly feel like Europe isn’t as good as it used to be, or even that it’s become a complete mess and that China is better now.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Journalists who write about China are often criticized either because they are too soft or too harsh in their analysis of the country. Are you ever accused of being one or the other about Europe?

Wang Qing: Yes, I’ve encountered both. Refugees are a topic that easily causes controversy on Chinese social media. When I tried to explain some of the complexities behind Europe’s refugee crisis, readers who might not be very familiar with Europe and saw the refugee crisis as a major disaster thought I was being too soft.

At the same time, some friends have told me they think my analysis of Brexit is too harsh, that I overestimate the impact it will have on the U.K. But based on my interviews I judged at the time that its impact will be quite serious.

I think my situation is a bit different compared to Western journalists in China, however. If you work for an established international media outlet, your analysis will have an impact on government policy. Even though sometimes people in government or academia might read what I write, what I write is mostly for ordinary Chinese readers. So its impact on policy is small. This is the case for many reporters working for commercial media, and this probably is a reflection of the status of media in China.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Are there any misconceptions about Europe that stand out, about which you cannot convince your readers or editors otherwise?

Wang Qing: One example that I find quite interesting is about Europe’s attitude towards regulation. The European Union has introduced a lot of digital regulation in recent years, which is a source of discussion in China. From a Chinese perspective, Europe is doing this because it doesn’t have strong internet companies like Facebook or Alibaba.

Some people — not me — think Europe’s economy and status have slipped because there is too much regulation. This idea is widely shared by my fellow Chinese journalists who do financial and economic reporting. I will try to explain to them that the so-called decline of the European economy isn’t actually because they overregulate, or that this regulation is necessary and might also be adopted in China. [NOTE: In August 2021, China passed what one article in the National Law Review called “the world’s harshest data privacy law,” with stricter data security requirements some experts found to be opaque.]

I think the larger context of this is that Chinese intellectuals, after experiencing China’s marketization drive in the early ’90s, have formed a consensus that less oversight promotes economic development. So they don’t understand why Europe would choose to implement more regulations.

As for misconceptions among the wider public, I can take my mother as an example. When the yellow vest movement damaged the Champs Elysées, the Chinese internet was overflowing with fake news about how Paris had become a hell on earth. So my mother will think that Europe is total chaos. Sometimes due to the time difference, when I wake up, my mom will have already sent me 10 different articles she saw online about how Europe is a mess, and ask whether I shouldn’t consider moving back home.

Navigating the Shrinking Space of Weibo

Kevin Schoenmakers:  You’re quite active on Weibo, where you have more than 75,000 followers. Do you consider this part of your job as a journalist, to build an audience?

Wang Qing: I don’t really have a detailed strategy for my Weibo. But I want it to be a personal thing, a channel through which I engage with what is happening in China. I know many foreign reporters will use Twitter to promote their work. I sometimes do that, but only when I think that what I wrote is relevant to what is already being discussed on Weibo at that moment.

Weibo might be the only public space left in China. Even though its scope is shrinking too, there is still a lot of discussion on Weibo every day, and the topics are very different from what foreign media report on when it comes to China. What is talked about on Weibo isn’t of national importance, but it’s still meaningful to me. People talk about gender issues, consumerism, and other things that young Chinese people are concerned about. I want to engage in these discussions.

Sometimes I will bring a European perspective. One time, a Chinese rental platform had some funding issues that caused its young customers to suddenly have no houses to live in. This sparked a discussion on whether it’s better to buy or rent an apartment. I shared my experience renting a house in Europe, and explained why young people in Europe don’t seem to be in a hurry to buy a house because there are policies that protect tenants.

But I won’t write daily posts about what happened in the EU today. I don’t want my account to be a press release machine.

Kevin Schoenmakers: In recent years, discussion of China on Western social media is at times very black-and-white — you’re either in favor of or against China. Is the discussion of Europe on Weibo similar?

Wang Qing: There is such a trend. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic and the worsening international climate, Chinese social media users have become more antagonistic toward Europe and the U.S., or the West in general. Fewer people are willing to understand the complexities of the world, or they no longer speak up and are drowned out by more radical voices.

The fact that European countries made mistakes in how they handled COVID-19 only adds to this. Chinese social media users will think, “Why can’t we criticize them? Why do we have to agree that Europe is a nice place? Why do we need to be nuanced?” I don’t think this is something particularly Chinese. All around the world people seem to have lost their interest in and patience for understanding another culture’s complexity.

Kevin Schoenmakers: On Twitter, female journalists say they face constant harassment. Is this also an issue on Weibo?

Wang Qing: Yes, there is a lot of harassment aimed at women on Weibo as well. It’s not necessary because they are journalists, but just because they are female. I think an important context is that on Weibo, gender issues are very actively discussed — far more than any other topic. It might be one of the few issues that can still be discussed publicly on the Chinese internet to the same degree it is discussed internationally. Usually there are people in strong support and in strong opposition to certain gender issues, and as a result women will face a lot of attacks by patriarchal users.

I recently posted something about the Kris Wu rape case that got tens of thousands of comments. Many people agreed with my point of view, but I also got a lot of hateful responses, including private messages, saying “Why do you want to turn this into a gender thing?” They think feminism in China is going too far. People who have grown up in East Asian cultures may not be accustomed to women speaking out in public. So when you do speak up, a lot of people will attack you for your gender.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Do people ever send abusive comments because you are a journalist?      

Wang Qing: That happens as well. I think because journalists and other public intellectuals have become stigmatized in China. In the past, say five or ten years ago, when you said that a person is a public intellectual, it was a compliment. Everyone would think such a person is very knowledgeable, that they have a critical perspective, and are doing something good for society. But views have shifted to public intellectuals being people who don’t want the country to do well. So people with these identities are attacked a lot. But still, I mostly receive abusive comments because of my gender.

Podcasting Through the Pandemic

Kevin Schoenmakers: How would you describe your podcast? Who are your co-hosts? What do you talk about?

Wang Qing: I started the podcast together with two friends who are former journalists at the end of 2019. We began because we’d often talk and when media people talk they mix their private stories with things that are in the news, and we figured conversations like that can be quite interesting. So we thought about how to present this to an audience and turn it into a podcast.

We named it TheWeirdo (in Chinese: 不合时宜, meaning to be out of step with current thinking) because we believe that in Chinese society there are a lot of people like us who feel like they may not be in line with the mainstream of the era, who are independent but still interact with society. We hoped to bring people like this together through the podcast.

We talk about domestic and international current affairs, but also issues that young Chinese people are concerned with such as education, buying a house, and having children.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Podcasting took a while to take off in China compared to the West. Why do you think that is? Have you noticed your podcast’s audience has grown a lot recently as well?

Wang Qing: I saw an industry analysis that said many American podcasts are made by institutional media who have experience with making radio, such as NPR. But Chinese podcasts are almost all very grass-roots. Podcasters might be journalists, like us, but there is no institutional support. I don’t have a radio background either, I’ve mostly done written journalism. There are very few Chinese media companies that are systematically making podcasts.

One reason podcasts are gaining popularity is that across Chinese online platforms, the quality of the content is decreasing. Because, depending on whether you want to write an article for 100,000 or 1 million people, your approach has to be very different. For the former, you can write in a very refined way that only highly educated people might understand. For the latter, you have to write in a way so it is very easy to understand. So with other content decreasing in quality, podcasts have become something that highly educated people enjoy.

One reason podcasts are gaining popularity is that across Chinese online platforms, the quality of the content is decreasing.

Podcasts really gained attention in China during the pandemic last year. Lots of people had to stay at home and wanted good content to pass the time. Our audience also grew during that period. When we began in late 2019, we had no idea we’d grow this much, or even be successful at all. But our conversations resonated with listeners. It’s more important than anything for a creative to find an audience that understands your content. It will really boost your morale. So when we grew our audience and they responded with writing letters and whatnot, it was very inspiring to us and made us keep going.

For example, during the pandemic last year when a lot of flights were cancelled and many students who wanted to go abroad were unable to go. Lots of people were wondering whether China would be cut off from the world. We talked about studying abroad in an episode, and I said that because of the worsening international climate in which every country is isolating itself, people who can form bridges across borders should go abroad more than ever. Afterward some listeners said that they had abandoned their study abroad plans but because of us they had changed their mind. A year later these people are on their way to foreign universities. Stories like this inspire us to keep at it.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How big is your audience?

Wang Qing: We have about 500,000 subscribers across all platforms. Popular episodes are downloaded up to 700,000 times, less popular ones fewer than 200,000 times.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Some people say podcasts are popular in China right now because they are quite loosely regulated. Would you agree?

Wang Qing: I think the restrictions on certain topics in place on other platforms are also there for podcasts. The difference lies in the audience. Podcasts listeners are relatively highly educated and liberal minded. And when you listen to a podcast, you need to spend an hour to listen to an entire episode, so that means you can deal with a lot of nuance and won’t get furious when you don’t agree with someone’s argument. This gives podcasters more space, but they still have to adhere to certain limits on content.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Have any of your episodes been taken offline?

Wang Qing: Yes, they have. When you discuss something that’s closely related to a recent news event that’s a hot topic, that episode is at a higher risk of getting taken down.

Kevin Schoenmakers: I listen to some Chinese podcasts, and I’ve noticed none of them run ads. Do you know why that is? Have you been contacted by companies to place ads?

Wang Qing: Commercialization of podcasts is a hot topic right now. We regularly have people from our audience who work at some or other large company and contact us to ask whether we’d want to join their promotional campaign. But the way advertising is done in Chinese podcasts isn’t the same as in English-language podcasts. Rarely will there be ad reads before the start of an episode. The format is more commonly that a company has something to promote and the podcast will create content based on that. But as far as I know, Chinese podcasts, especially those with large audiences, are very selective. When choosing an advertiser you have to make sure it fits your brand to keep your audience happy.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Have you placed such ads?

Wang Qing: We have created some content for brands, mostly regarding gender topics.

Kevin Schoenmakers: What kind of brand?

Wang Qing: I won’t name them, but we mostly work with brands that promote ideas rather than products, and these ideas need to be in line with our values. One of them was a relatively large Chinese e-commerce brand. They had a report about consumer behavior and had noticed men were buying more yoga mats and women were buying more boxing gloves. This is against stereotypes, so we thought it was an interesting phenomenon. They hoped we could make an episode about gender stereotypes and we felt this fit our podcast.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Lastly, I’d like to discuss one of your episodes that was was about what it’s like to be a woman, a journalist, and a person living abroad. In China or at Chinese media outlets, what is the difference between being a female journalist and a male journalist?

Wang Qing: Female reporters in China face many different stereotypes. One is that, when there’s some big news event, female reporters are just there as eye candy or to fulfill a quota, and not because of their ability.

And, though the number of female reporters within media organizations is pretty big, the executives are men. In journalism school there are also way more women than men, but the decision makers are mostly men. Male reporters have higher salaries, have more opportunities to make a name for themselves, and are given more on-camera appearances.

The professional life of female reporters in China is generally quite short. Unlike in other industries, as a journalist you have to be on the frontline. But a woman in her 30s will have to think about having children and taking care of her family, making it hard to do on-the-ground reporting. In other professions, your 30s is a time when you have finished your training and you enter a golden age of productivity. But as a female journalist, you will find that there are fewer opportunities for you because you have your family responsibilities.

In addition, in the past two years there have been a lot of reports of violence against and sexual harassment of female reporters. These incidents have always existed, but because of the gender movement, this has been getting wider attention and has thus become more visible.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Would you say more women are moving into positions of leadership within Chinese media?

Wang Qing: I think a very interesting change is that the rise of self-media is providing women with more opportunities. I think gender-wise there has been no change in institutional media. They’re part of the establishment, so men dominate editor-in-chief or CEO positions. But because we now have self-media, many women leave institutional media and start on their own path that is outside the establishment and doesn’t have the same historical baggage. They become their own bosses, and they do really well creating fresh content and valuable brands.

So self-media has had some impact on the traditionally male-dominated media industry, which I think is a positive development. Women have another source of opportunities, and they’ve discovered they are no worse than men, that they can be media directors, and that they can have a family while also working on their career. There are many female media professionals around me who have successfully started their own businesses.

Kevin Schoenmakers: In the episode I mentioned you say that younger women who are considering a career in news media often message you asking for advice. What do they ask you and how do you respond?

Wang Qing: People want to know what it’s like to be a female reporter and a foreign correspondent; how to enter this career; what the career path is like; and what the opportunities and challenges are.

I think a big reason they reach out to me is that I’m on Weibo, and they sooner believe advice from a person than from an organization. There is also a trend in China called “girls help girls.” People are more aware now of the power that connections between women can have. On Weibo this atmosphere is now very noticable. If a younger woman is looking for advice, she’ll reach out to another woman rather than a man, because he’s not facing the same situations.

I don’t really directly give advice, because everyone’s circumstances are different. But I will describe my situation, the challenges and problems you will face as a female journalist in China, and how these aren’t always things you can solve through your own efforts.

If you are going to be a reporter in China, one of the questions people will often ask you is: how long do you plan to do this? Careers in this industry seem very short. It’s not as in international media where there is a track from junior reporter, to senior reporter, to some overseas postings, to an editor position, and a chief editor position. In China, this might exist in official state media, but in commercial media, the path forward isn’t very clear.

When I look in front of me, it’s difficult to find a role model whose career path I can follow. As we discussed in the episode, when we were young there were some female reporters who we could take as our role models, but they have all left the industry. This is very dispiriting, and makes it hard to know what your next goal or your next stop could be. But perhaps this is something that the current generation of female reporters should do. Because the people before you didn’t create a path, you have to look for one yourself.

I had my doubts in previous years, but I’m more determined to go on doing this for as long as I can. But being a journalist might not be my one and only job. I might start some other projects, but always carry the journalistic mindset and mentality with me. I might not be in a media company but be more flexible. Social media has brought many new opportunities and spaces that didn’t exist before. If you asked me now what I would do if I could go back to the beginning. Then I think I would still choose to be a journalist.

China’s Telling Twitter Story

Twitter users are liking and sharing fewer tweets by Chinese news outlets since the social media platform started labeling them as state-affiliated, an analysis by the China Media Project shows.

Comparing tweets from a sample of 33 official Chinese accounts on Twitter for 50-day periods immediately before and after the implementation of the new policy in August 2020, CMP found that tweets by most of the accounts studied showed significantly fewer shares and likes.

The three accounts with the most followers, belonging to state broadcaster CGTN, state news agency Xinhua, and the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, all saw drops of over 20 percent per tweet. The numbers for China Daily and the Global Times, English-language newspapers published by the Information Office of the State Council and the People’s Daily respectively, also shrank by double digits. Tweets by the latter, a national tabloid long known for its often provocative comments on world affairs, received 31 percent fewer likes after the labeling.

Twitter introduced labels for state media and government accounts on August 6, 2020, with the goal of “providing people with context so they can make informed decisions,” according to a company announcement of the policy at the time. The announcement said the company would begin, in the interests of “transparency and practicality,” with the five countries comprising the UN security council: the US, UK, France, Russia, and China, before expanding to more countries.

As for which media would be labeled “state-affiliated,” Twitter said these would be outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content. “Unlike independent media, state-affiliated media frequently use their news coverage as a means to advance a political agenda,” Twitter wrote. The company made clear that the “state-affiliated” label would preclude organizations such as the BBC in the UK, and National Public Radio (NPR) in the US, which receives some federal funding but maintains strict editorial independence policies.

As the labelling process was implemented, in consultation with independent experts on the Twitter Trust and Safety Council, certain individual employees at Chinese state media also received this label. Prominent among them was Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the Global Times editor-in-chief known for his outspokenness on social media, both inside and outside China. Hu seemed to notice soon after the new policy that Twitter users were less interested in what he had to say. On August 14, 2020, a week after his Twitter account was labelled, he tweeted that he no longer saw the same level of growth in new followers that he was used to – and he had noticed people unfollowing him. “It seems Twitter will eventually choke my account,” he wrote.

Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin remarks on the new labelling policy at Twitter on August 14, 2020.

As it applied the new label, Twitter also said it would no longer amplify or recommend state-affiliated media accounts or their tweets. This means that Twitter accounts like that of China Daily, the state-run English newspaper, no longer feature at the top of search results when users search the service with keywords like “china daily,” which amounts to unpaid promotion of such accounts. This followed a 2019 policy by which the company restricted the purchase of advertising by “state-controlled news media entities.”

A search of “china daily” on Twitter, conducted on January 12, 2021, does not call up the official China Daily account.

For many businesses, advertising services on Twitter, through tools like “Quick Promote,” are an important way to boost engagement, increasing followers and website traffic. But Chinese state media and diplomats have also seen platforms like Twitter and Facebook as essential channels in getting global audiences to hear official state narratives, and redress what China’s propaganda officials regard as a serious deficit in what they call “international discourse power” (国际话语权), and what they regard as a key aspect of China’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力).

Borrowed Boats

China is broadly seen by CCP leaders as lacking in “soft power,” a concept introduced to international relations theory in the 1980s by American political scientist Joseph Nye, and which in 2007 was incorporated into China’s political report to the 17th National Congress of the CCP through the phrase “cultural soft power” (文化软实力). Leaders essentially see the country’s lack of soft power, or its “discourse deficit” (话语赤字), particularly against the strength of Western media and governments, as having a serious impact on China’s international ambitions.

While China’s government has tried to address this “discourse deficit” by pouring huge resources into the international development of state media, and into a broad campaign of public diplomacy, its cultural and media products have had limited appeal abroad. Looking to bolster his country’s image, and to balance against international criticism, president Xi Jinping urged state media in 2013, during an August meeting of propaganda ministers from across the country, to “tell China’s story well” (讲好中国故事). This catchier propaganda notion has now essentially supplanted talk of soft power, to become the central catchphrase encompassing a modernized notion of what the CCP has long called “external propaganda” (外宣). In fact, Xi spoke in his 2013 address of “innovating external propaganda methods . . . that integrate the Chinese and the foreign.”

But despite China’s massive external media investments, reaching foreign audiences has been difficult, and so these same outlets rely on Western social media to share China’s viewpoints. They have been aggressive in making sure they have a big audiences – or at least appear to have them – on major platforms like Twitter. Some Chinese state media have spent millions of yuan to expand their base of followers on both Twitter as well as Facebook, as tender documents show. A government notice published in August 2019 showed that China’s top internet control body, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), had a one-year agreement with the People’s Daily for the latter to promote information about China on Facebook for 5.8 million yuan, or just over 800,000 US dollars. State media have also been suspected of buying followers on social media networks.

China’s use of Twitter has long been viewed as problematic, particularly given the banning of Western social media platforms inside China, and restrictions on the use of domestic Chinese platforms by Western news outlets and foreign diplomatic missions. State outlets like China Daily, which joined Twitter in November 2009, just five months after the network was banned in China following riots in the northwestern city of Urumqi, have been given relatively free reign to espouse Beijing’s viewpoints on Twitter, Facebook, and other services outside China. Western news outlets and foreign diplomatic missions in China operating accounts on Chinese domestic social media platforms such as Weibo, a popular microblogging service launched in the wake of the Twitter crackdown, have frequently been censored or blocked outright.

China has also been accused of abusing its official presence on these platforms. In August 2019, Twitter said it had “reliable evidence to support that . . . . a coordinated state-backed operation” was pushing out misinformation regarding protests in Hong Kong, and suspended some 200,000 accounts. Subsequent actions announced in September 2019 and June 2020 removed thousands of other accounts.

In 2020, accounts run by Chinese media or government actors actively promoted conspiracy theories on the origin of the virus that causes COVID-19. ProPublica in March reported on more than 10,000 fake or hijacked accounts that promoted Chinese government viewpoints. Meanwhile, Chinese nationals who use VPNs or other tools to jump the firewall and tweet messages going against the government’s viewpoints can face prosecution by the authorities.

With Beijing seeming more assertive than ever in its effort to change how its actions are viewed in other countries, Twitter isn’t the only company that has increased its scrutiny of Chinese media. A number of newspapers around the world that previously carried paid inserts from state propaganda outlets like China Daily, another favored way of utilizing Western channels to reach broader audiences, have recently stopped the practice. They include the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Telegraph, and several Australian media. Newspaper inserts are just one of many “borrowed boat” methods that China has employed in an effort to get its message out to audiences in the West and elsewhere in the world.

Splitting Differences

Our research suggests that Twitter’s new labelling policy has to some extent curtailed the ability for Chinese state media to reach audiences outside China. But Twitter’s move has also elicited criticism for painting all Chinese media with the same brush. Long-time readers of CMP, which has tracked Chinese media development since 2004, will be aware that the media landscape in China has changed dramatically since the 1990s, with the emergence before the new millennium of a new generation of more market-oriented media. In many cases, media affiliated with the Party-state, such as commercial spin-offs of Party-run publications at the provincial and city levels, pursued a more daring brand of professional journalism against the formal constraints of the media control system.

Through the 2000s, these media often challenged official narratives with strong reporting from the scene of breaking news stories, such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, or through in-depth or investigative reporting. And while Chinese media have faced a far more difficult professional environment since 2012, owing to more determined political controls and a digital transformation that has fundamentally changed the commercial environment, it should be recognized that there are still marked differences between media outlets – and not all are simply propaganda organs.

Fang Kecheng, a former journalist and now assistant professor of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that, in principle, it is not a bad thing to help social media users better understand the content they are viewing. But Twitter’s current label, while not strictly inaccurate, lacks important context. “There is simply no private newspaper or TV station in China,” he says. “But media outlets like Caixin are significantly different from Party mouthpieces like the People’s Daily.”

A prime example of the complex phenomenon of journalism undertaken within constraints, and with state affiliation, Caixin was launched in 2010 by Hu Shuli (胡舒立), a respected journalism veteran who for many years ran Caijing magazine, a commercial business publication that distinguished itself into the 2000s with heavy-hitting investigative stories, such as its series on the 2003 SARS epidemic. Hu remains Caixin’s publisher, and has a strong team of journalists that continue to pursue tough stories in a difficult environment. In March 2020, for example, the outlet called into question the official Covid-19 death toll figures being released in the city of Wuhan. In 2016, Caixin even spoke out directly against the CAC after it ordered the deletion of a critical article. Such open criticism of official censorship is rare in China.

Caixin is a commercially operating media outlet. Like all media in China, however, it must have some affiliation with the state through a so-called “sponsoring institution,” or zhuguan danwei (主管单位), responsible for maintaining the CCP’s ultimate control over the press system. The sponsoring institution” overseeing Caixin is the Chinese Literature and History Press (中国文史出版社), a publishing house operated by the General Office of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body.

It is important to recognize that media like Caixin, while also state-affiliated, can have room for critical and investigative journalism, Fang says. He suggests Twitter could refer users to a third-party website with detailed information. It might be possible, he says, for social media companies to commission such a site. At present, there are no reliable expert sources for a more detailed understanding of how various media operate. YouTube, which began labeling “news broadcasters that receive some level of government or public funding” in 2018, links users to Wikipedia.

In a written response to CMP, Twitter said it defines state-affiliated media as “entities that are financed and/or editorially controlled by a state or government authorities. This control can be exerted through self-censorship or direct publication of information per the directive of the government.” The statement continues, “We think it is important for people on Twitter to know when they’re seeing media of this nature so that they can draw their own conclusions.”

The conclusions many users are drawing, our analysis suggests, are leading them to disengage with Chinese media across the board. Just a handful of labeled accounts received more attention from Twitter users after labels were applied.

Tweets from China Xinhua Sci-Tech, which shares “science, space, health and environment news from Xinhua News Agency,” received more likes but also fewer retweets. Tweets by Sixth Tone, an English-language online magazine under the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group that like Caixin can sometimes go out on a limb in covering more in-depth stories, were liked 6 percent more but also retweeted a third less. Party newspaper Guangming Daily was a rare Chinese news outlet to — barely — improve in both categories.

Some accounts labeled “China state-affiliated media” can still pay to promote their tweets because they fall under the exception for outlets focusing on entertainment, travel, or sports. According to Twitter’s Ads Transparency Center, XinhuaTravel, Xinhua’s XHSports, as well as PDChinaLife, PDChinaSports, and ChinaScience, three accounts run by People’s Daily, are all still able to promote tweets. Possibly as a result, some of these accounts saw relatively big changes — both positive and negative — in the number of likes and retweets.

Though these accounts do not engage in the most overt kind of propaganda, their tweets still occasionally espouse Chinese government standpoints, such as that Taiwan is unequivocally part of China, or promote propaganda projects such as the China International Import Expo or the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge. They also tweet about China’s COVID-19 diplomacy and spread alternate versions of where the virus may have originated. Twitter’s state media ads policy states that, “If the content is mixed with news, any advertisements will be prohibited.” But, according to the company, the above-mentioned accounts are not in violation.

Another outlier was the Twitter account of iPanda, a product of state broadcaster CCTV which almost exclusively shares cute photos and videos of giant pandas. Both likes and retweets were up by more than 50 percent. Twitter confirmed that the account is allowed to advertise, but that it hasn’t since at least August 6.

The takeaway, it seems, is that China’s most reliable soft power trump card is the adorable antics of its bamboo-munching black-and-white bears.

iPanda, a Twitter account operated by the Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV, is one of just a few “state-affiliated media” accounts allowed to advertise on Twitter.


We looked at Twitter accounts belonging to media companies that are labeled “China state-affiliated media” by Twitter and have more than 50,000 followers. Because Twitter declined to give a full overview of such accounts, our list (attached below) might not be complete. The only deliberate exclusion from our sample was @XHIndonesia, a local Xinhua account, which, despite some 65,300 followers, did not receive enough engagement.

We scraped the numbers of likes and retweets of all Tweets by these accounts, between June 17, 2020 and September 25, 2020. Using August 6, 2020, as a breakpoint, the average engagement performance of Tweets before that is seen as a baseline. To rule out potential influence of outliers (e.g. Tweets receiving unusually high engagement), these were taken out when calculating the average engagement metrics.

Our analysis does not necessarily prove causality. The drop in shares and likes could also have other causes — for example, because fewer news events that happened in China following the labeling managed to grab readers’ attention. It also does not take into account any changes in follower numbers over the surveyed period, or differentiate between the effects of Twitter’s various policy changes. Not all engagement might be organic.