Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Jun 18, 2018

'Be careful when talking about Tibet': Tool aims to help brands avoid hot water

Social-management platform Kawo wants to help ease the angst of brand managers who worry about posts running afoul of China's ever-shifting list of banned topics.

'Be careful when talking about Tibet': Tool aims to help brands avoid hot water

Kawo, an enterprise WeChat and Weibo social management platform based in Shanghai, has launched a new feature that it claims can save brands from social media posts going wrong.

When a brand makes a post containing potentially contentious words, for example "Taiwan" or "Tibet", the feature will flag it before the post goes out. 

The tool only works on social-media posts, so it wouldn't prevent real-world gaffes like the recent Gap t-shirt design that did not include Tibet or Taiwan on a map of China, even though these are two territories that China claims as its own.

Still, with concern and even paranoia running high among brands following China's calls for 36 airlines to change certain wording on their websites or risk being banned, any help may be welcome. "The philosophy behind the tool is that better process lead to better decisions," said Andrew Collins, CEO of Mailman Group, parent company of Kawo.

Observing appropriate sensitivity in social media posts in China is a growing challenge for Kawo's clients. In the first half of 2018, Collins has seen as many as 50 posts rejected for what the largest social networks deem as containing “illegal content”.

What is "illegal" is only vaguely defined, and Weibo and WeChat often make rejections without giving a clear reason, apart from any posts that contain content that is obviously politically sensitive. "A post announcing tennis results wasn't able to be published because one of the scores was the same as the date of a sensitive event in recent Chinese history," shared Alex Duncan, co-founder and product lead at Kawo.

More mysterious was the post about a new lobster restaurant that got blocked two weekends ago. "The situation is changing every week; it’s impossible to expect content marketers to stay abreast of what they can or can’t say, especially with niche situations in certain industries, said Duncan.

A 2017 survey by four major players in the Chinese social media scene (运营研究社,人人秀,新媒体管家,上线了) found that 79% of social-media executives in China were born since 1990 and over 90% have less than three years' experience. Brands are putting a lot of risk in the hands of young, inexperienced content-marketing executives, Duncan warned.

"The consequences can be incredibly severe, so we wanted to find a way to help protect the brands who publish through Kawo by building the screening for sensitive words into our workflow." A warning, which brands must accept before publishing, pops up and explains why each term, or related URL, is either banned outright or sensitive.

Kawo compiled a set of more than 600 common no-nos (see a sample below), but brands can also configure their own lists with words specific to their sectors, including names of competitors.

Banned utterances like "18-star flag", which is associated with Chinese revolutionaries, words describing obscene acts like "bestiality", or expletives will result in the post being denied right away. For sensitive ones, brands need to exercise caution about the context the words are used in, Duncan explained.

And this is where the grey area begins. Like the mysteriously rebuffed lobster restaurant, the sensitivity of Chinese censors seems arbitrary. Last year, when Trump visited China, all the names of major US talk-show hosts were suddenly barred on Weibo, one of them being Ellen DeGeneres. Until today, the term 艾伦秀 (meaning 'Ellen Show') is still censored, but inexplicably, 艾伦脱口秀 ('Ellen TalkShow') is not.

"From speaking to senior people at some of these big companies, [I found] they're pretty paranoid right now," said Duncan. "They've all expanded rapidly to capture the market and now they have dozens of social profiles being managed by a dozen agencies all over the place in which they have little or no oversight. At any given moment some junior copywriter or marketing executive somewhere down the line could unintentionally post something with far-reaching consequences for the organisation. They have no idea what's going on. On top of that, the marketing teams are all in their 20s and they change jobs every 18 months. Even if they could do training, it would be a constant battle."      

Word/Phrase Level
6.4   sensitive
1989   banned
20-Mar banned
3-Apr  banned
4-Jun  banned
43255   sensitive
18 star flag   banned
18禁   sensitive
38th army banned
71遊行   sensitive
89 movement banned
89运动   sensitive
april 6th banned
april fifth banned
attack   sensitive
a片   sensitive
banned  sensitive
bayi square banned
bestiality   banned
bitch  banned
bloomberg  banned
bomb  sensitive
breast   sensitive
buddha  banned
buddism  banned
cannibalism  banned
ccp   sensitive
ccp  sensitive
censor  sensitive
charter 8 banned
christianity  banned
clitoris  banned
cochinchina  sensitive
cock  banned
committee  sensitive
communism  sensitive
communist  sensitive
conflict  sensitive
cpc  sensitive
crime  sensitive
cunt  banned
dalai  banned
dalai lama banned
deauville  sensitive
democracy  sensitive
despotism  banned
dictatorship  banned
dissident  banned
drug  sensitive
drunk  sensitive
eastern lightning sensitive
election  sensitive
erotic  banned
evil  sensitive
exile  sensitive
facebook  banned
fag  banned
falun  banned
fetish  banned
fifty cents banned
forged  sensitive
forgery  sensitive
four cleanups sensitive
freedom  sensitive
fuck  banned
gay  banned
genocide  sensitive
gfw  banned
gov  sensitive
great firewall banned
great leap sensitive
homo  banned
homosexual  banned
homosexuality  banned
human rights banned
immolation  banned
incest  banned
internet blocking banned
ip block banned
ip封锁   sensitive
islam  banned
japan  sensitive
jiabao  sensitive
journalism  sensitive
justice  sensitive
ketamine  banned
k粉   sensitive
lama  sensitive
legislative council sensitive
lesbian  banned
ludovisi  sensitive
machete  sensitive
mao  sensitive
marijuana  banned
massacre  sensitive
may 4th banned
may fourth banned
mein kampf banned
military  sensitive
mongolia  sensitive
monk  banned
multi-party  banned
muslim  banned
nine commentaries banned
nobel peace sensitive
nobel prize sensitive
oppression  sensitive
over the banned
parade  banned
party-state  banned
pedophile  banned
pedophilia  banned
penetrate  sensitive
penetration  sensitive
petn  sensitive
politic  sensitive
porn  banned
prisoner  sensitive
propaganda  banned
prostitute  banned
prostitution  banned
protest  banned
red terror banned
reform  banned
regime  banned
religion  banned
resign  sensitive
revolution  banned
rifle  sensitive
satellite tv sensitive
scrotum  banned
seperatist  banned
sex  banned
shit  banned
sibao movement banned
sichuan movement banned
slut  banned
sodomy  banned
taiwan  sensitive
the liaison sensitive
the unification banned
theodore de banned
three years of natural disasters   banned
threesome  banned
tiananmen  banned
tibet  banned
tnt  sensitive
turkestan  sensitive
turkistan  sensitive
turmoil  sensitive
twitter  banned
typhoon rose sensitive
upskirt  banned
vagina  banned
veteran  sensitive
villeurbanne  sensitive
violence  sensitive
warlord  sensitive
weed  sensitive
whore  banned
wikileaks  banned
xmlhttp  sensitive
youtube  banned
ywhw  banned
zedong  sensitive
zemin  sensitive


Campaign China

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