The mandatory geo-tagging of user-generated content by major Chinese social media platforms including Weibo, Wechat, Toutiao, Douyin and Kuaishou has generated heated debate in recent weeks both inside and outside the country.

While the sudden rollout of the mandatory policy on China’s top social media sites, which automatically marks IP address location on user-generated content such as posts and comments, is generally believed to be part of Beijing’s efforts combating online rumors and disinformation originating from outside the country, many domestic internet users worry that it infringes on their privacy, leaving them open to targeted harassment and abuse.

A careful look at the history of geocoding policies by major international platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat shows that they, to some extent, all geocode their users, meaning that they can provide accurate geographical coordinates corresponding to a real-life location based on a user’s activity.

The purpose is simple: platforms can boost revenue and engagement by running accurately geotargeted ads. Unsurprisingly, such practices are viewed with a degree of suspicion and discomfort, with many seeing geocoding as an insidious violation of privacy rights and personal data which is open to abuse.

The reality is that without location-based capabilities, most social media platforms would entirely cease to function effectively. As such, they can be seen as a necessary evil. Until now, internet users have been aware of entering into Faustian pact with third party location data storage units. In signing up to any social media platform, users essential agree to the use of their personal location data – providing said data is safely stored – in return for a tailored online experience in which algorithms serve up localized ads and more relatable content.

However, recent events in China’s cyberspace show us that user data is beginning to be shared in an apparent attempt to curtail ‘misinformation’. The fall-out of how this will affect the subsequent online behaviours and the identities of netizens will be of great interest going forward.

people connecting all over the world using modern technology

Context: Geocoding East and West

Contrary to popular belief, most sites are successful because of their ability to provide a localized experience to users wherever they are in the world through geocoding. It is a rare instance of profiteering and performance going hand in hand.

In the West, as far-back as 2012, Facebook purchased location-sharing start-ups Gowalla and Glancee to revamp their application programming interface (API) and provide seamless location-sharing across third-party applications. The primary goal was to allow Facebook to move into the local recommendation service sector, where it would take on FourSquare and Yelp! This would lead to more lucrative spend from advertisers looking to hit key targeted demographics.

In 2017, Snap Inc., Snapchat’s parent company, acquired Zenly, a French meet-up app which allows you to find your friends with real-time location, for $300 million USD. This allowed Snap Inc. to optimize their ‘Snap Map’ function on Snapchat, again drastically improving ad performance and spend for greater profit and higher user engagement.

The picture is different in China when it comes to geocoding. The Great Fire Wall and heightened online regulation show that ‘geocoding’ can be used for more than improved ad-targeting. While in the west, third parties giving up data to their parent company is seen as a ‘breech’ which can a loss of trust, in China it is more a fact of life, seeing as third parties  all ultimately operate within an interconnected nexus overseen by regulators.

This is not to say that personal privacy is not seen as a fundamental – though admittedly hard to define – right in China. As a concept, online privacy is seen as a safeguard to freedom of expression and identity, and it is this which has made Weibo’s recent activity all the more impactful amongst Netizens.

Woman hand using smart phone on top of mountain with navigator location point abstract background

Weibo and the War on Misinformation

How the internet should be regulated has been a red-hot topic since the inception of the world wide web. When viewed through the lens of China’s attempts to curtail what it sees as ‘Fake News’ and misinformation, we a practical example of how geocoding can be used to these ends.

The start of 2022 has already triggered some seismic events within this discourse. On an unregulated platform, where user’s identities are unverified, this means theoretically anyone can say anything about any given topic, leading to a proliferation of potentially ‘Fake News’, ranging from misinformation to fear mongering; results which often exacerbate the initial issues. To combat, Weibo has begun to utilize its geocoding to publish users’ IP Addresses beneath each of their posts. Ostensibly, this is to try to weed out bots and bring in a level of accountability to social media debate, while guiding a more grounded form of discussion.

This has been seen as a controversial decision, and will have a significant impact on how people – and brands – act online.  Foremost from a business standpoint is how the internet as a marketing tool will alter. If users do not feel comfortable to be themselves, then the places we would expect our demographics to hang out online will be lost. To an ironic extent the original purpose of geocoding, to create more accurate ads, will be  made null and void by its newer regulatory applications.

Whether, or to what extent, this will happen in China remains to be seen. However, it is important to note that this is not just a ‘China’ issue. The West too shall soon face its own reckoning as to how to better regulate social media, with even ‘free-speech absolutist’ Elon Musk conceding as recently as May 1st that Twitter needs some form of ‘user authentication’ captcha (albeit one that will maintain outward anonymity) to combat fake news and bots.

How this will affect the behaviour of demographics and tribes online will become the key question for social marketers around the world; those interested would do well to keep an eye on China for a glimpse into a potential future.