In the West, we’ve become accustomed to reports of censorship in China as the result of a menacing authoritarian regime that threatens the core tenets of free expression. While a convenient construction, this centers authoritarianism as the guiding force for China’s social media platforms, missing the underlying capitalist logic behind the world’s largest internet ecosystem that is starting to extend past China’s borders to shape global commerce. Centering market-oriented logic helps blur the boundaries on both sides of the so-called Firewall… Like a physical shopping mall, the Chinese internet operates as a market-oriented public space, beholden first to the market and the state, and only then to users.
Platforms utilize small armies of paid click workers—digital mall cops—who interpret these regulations in real-world contexts. Their actions, in turn, train artificial intelligence systems that provide blanket coverage… All around the world, shopping malls are designed first and foremost for commerce, but double as a place of quasi-public gathering for parties, families and bored teenagers. Political dissent is not unheard of in malls, but it is rarely welcome.