The end of anonymity online in China

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At the end of last month, I published an essay reflecting on how the prospects for anonymity online in China changed drastically last year. Following many smaller decisions that make posting anonymously more difficult, the largest blow came in October when all social media platforms in China demanded that certain users with large followings display their legal names.

The government and the platforms argue that the new rule can help prevent online harassment and misinformation. While anonymity can be associated with wrongdoing, their argument conveniently neglects what anonymity—a right that has existed since the invention of the internet—has afforded people online. 

Who among us hasn’t participated in a niche online hobby that we didn’t tell our family about? Who insists that every online acquaintance call them by their real name? There’s comfort in knowing that my online persona and who I am in real life don’t have to be the same. Not everyone should, or deserves to, know everything about us. 

Scholars I talked to have observed and found evidence of many benefits that come with anonymity in China. It gives people the courage to speak up against censorship or provide communal help to strangers. “We are more likely to do what’s risky when we feel there’s more protection,” says Xinyu Pan, a researcher at Hong Kong University. It’s particularly important to marginalized groups, from women to LGBTQ individuals, who feel that their identities could attract harassment online. They can find comfort and community in anonymity.

This topic is important for me both professionally and personally. As a reporter, I’m always watching what people are saying online and working to extract important information from between the lines. But I’ve also used Chinese social media personally for more than a decade, and my profiles and communities mean a lot to me, whether as archives of my life’s moments or places where I met dear friends.

That’s why I wrote the essay. And I’m worried there’s more change to come. 

Vibe shifts are always small when they begin. I felt one earlier last year, when I started to notice little signs of aggression here and there that made me less comfortable sharing real-life experiences online. But soon they can begin to feel like a tsunami. And now, if people don’t want to end their digital lives, they don’t have much choice; the only option seems to be to give in and float with the waves, even if we don’t know where it’s taking us.

Consider that when it was first announced in October, platforms stated the real-name rule would only apply to accounts in more “serious” fields—people talking about politics, financial news, laws, health care. Even Weibo’s CEO, Wang Gaofei, replied to a user with 2 million followers who was worried about the rule, posting, “Took a look at [the] content. If it’s only an influencer sharing about their personal life, I don’t think they need to display their real names upfront.”

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