People’s Daily, the official newspaper of Chinese Communist Party, published an op-ed denouncing algorithm-driven news distribution platforms for the echo chamber they potentially create. The news aggregator Toutiao is name-checked by the critique.
Founded by 34-year-old engineer Zhang Yiming, Toutiao recommends articles and videos based on user data and reading habits. As of 2016, the app claimed 175 million monthly active users who spent an average of 76 minutes on it per day. The five-year-old startup chants the slogan, “only the news you care about are headlines,” a value proposition that the op-ed bashes: By consuming only favorable content, people never get exposed to alternative viewpoints or unfamiliar types of news, and end up living in an insulated, filtered bubble.
Toutiao has recently caught much attention for its rapid growth. The company’s valuation tops $22 billion in August as it’s raising around $2 billion. China’s Twitter-equivalent Weibo, which also works as a news platform to the extent that news are shared via friends, has a market cap of $20 billion as of August. Toutiao has been viewed, along with food delivery service Meituan and ride-hailing app Didi, to be the next BAT—China’s internet trinity of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. Toutiao is also one of the few lucrative Chinese internet companies that haven’t received any fundings from BAT.
In an interview with Caijing (in Chinese) last December, Zhang declared that Toutiao is a news platform, not an outlet, and thus does not assume the same role as the media.
“The difference between media and companies is that media needs to possess a value, it needs to educate people and convey propositions. We don’t do that. Because we are not a media… If you have to ask what Toutiao’s value is, I think that increasing distribution efficiency and satisfying users’ demand for information are the most important,” Zhang said (our translation).
This is not the first time People’s Daily has criticized a Chinese internet company. In July, it slammed Tencent’s blockbuster mobile game Honour of Kings, sending Tencent’s stock prices to plunge by 4.44% and lose HK$208.5 billion ($26.71) in market value.