China’s tech giants are helping the Communist Party’s newspaper fine-tune its online voice

Jane Li
Chinese national flag.

The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, is getting fresh help from some of China’s most prominent tech companies in creating and spreading its message, amid a broader drive to encourage social media firms to use their algorithms to promote the party’s narratives and values.

The country’s largest newspaper unveiled yesterday (Sept. 19) its People’s Daily Intelligent Media Research Institute (link in Chinese), which will help it experiment with the use of AI in news gathering and distribution. The newspaper also announced it had developed a short video streaming platform named People’s Daily + with the help of Kuaishou, a major rival of Douyin, the Chinese app known as TikTok overseas.

“Tech companies should leverage their advantages to further the development of media like the People’s Daily media group, helping the voice of the Party and the country spread in more channels and in a wider range, as well as using more creative formats,” said Su Hua (in Chinese), the founder and CEO of Kuaishou, at the event, according to Chinese media reports. Kuaishou, which is backed by social media giant Tencent, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Baidu, meanwhile, will build an AI Media Lab jointly with the newspaper and help it to curate a suite of applications built on the search giant’s algorithms and software, such as its voice, image and natural language processing, as well as to optimize its search results, according to a statement provided by Baidu to Quartz. The lab intends to use AI in every aspect of media, from content production and algorithmic recommendations to building AI-powered platforms, Baidu CEO Robin Li said in the statement.

In recent years, the Communist Party and state-run media have stepped up efforts to use technology and pop culture to appeal to younger users, for example with rap songs pegged to news events and games and apps to promote party ideology. The country’s state-run news agency Xinhua also unveiled a male AI reporter last year, followed by a female one this year.

The People’s Daily announcement comes after draft rules last week from the country’s internet regulator called on internet firms to tinker with their algorithms to direct people to content about party ideology and away from stuff like celebrity gossip. China has long relied on tech giants to follow its directions on “cleaning up” cyberspace since Chinese president Xi Jinping became the party’s top official in 2012, censoring content deemed politically incorrect or sensitive by the party, as well as obscene or violent material.

Other Chinese tech majors, such as Alibaba, Tencent, JD.com, Bytedance—whose AI driven news app has attracted censure from authorities for spreading “useless information“—Xiaomi, app delivery giant Meituan Dianping and e-commerce site Pinduoduo are also members of the new research institute, according to People’s Daily.

The uneasy relationship between the tech giants and the Party—which at times has seen companies lose billions in market value because of a critical editorial in the People’s Daily—is likely to be an increasing headache for companies. Huawei, for instance, has repeatedly denied that it is state-owned, or has a deep relationship with China’s military, but was nevertheless put on a trade blacklist by the US in May for national security reasons.

Initiatives like this, which appear to outside observers to be further drafting tech firms into China’s efforts to control public opinion, won’t help with the perception in other nations that China’s private firms are too close for comfort to the government.

 

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