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China’s clickbait apps targeted by state media

Could Qu Toutiao be the next to face an official crackdown?

This article originally appeared on ABACUS
It wasn’t that long ago that a popular humor app used by 17 million people in China was abruptly shut down by authorities, accused of carrying vulgar material. Now another app -- which made its name by giving users an eclectic mix of celebrity gossip, feng shui tips, and tenuous health claims -- has been singled out for criticism by state media.
The People’s Daily pounced on Qu Toutiao (which translates to “Fun Headlines”) and similar news apps. It criticized them for focusing too much on traffic, resulting in “meaningless” and sometimes pornographic content to chase clicks.

But clickbait is exactly what those apps are all about. They run on a “read and earn” model -- rewarding users with points for clicking on a certain amount of stories, and referring friends to the apps.

Similar to rival news app Jinri Toutiao, Qu Toutiao shows users an endless feed of articles recommended by its algorithm.

Qu Toutiao says the points you earn in the app can be converted to real money -- though the exchange rate varies daily according to the company’s advertising revenue. For instance, a successful friend referral on the app is worth 3,500 points -- but that could translate to anything from around 2 to 40 US cents depending on the day.

That doesn’t seem a lot -- but the app thrives in third- and fourth-tier cities, which are usually less wealthy than their better-known peers like Shanghai and Beijing. Launched less than two years ago, it now boasts more than 10 million daily active users.
Qu Toutiao claims its top users have managed to earn thousands of dollars. But on Zhihu (a Quora-like Q&A site), it’s not uncommon to see people complaining they had been banned in the app for no clear reason -- and after accumulating a sizeable number of points.

Zhihu, where people in China go to ask questions and get answers

The Chinese government often signals displeasure through stories in state media. Just a few months after the People’s Daily criticized Jinri Toutiao (no relation to Qu Toutiao), the popular news aggregator saw its main app removed from stores, and its humor app banned completely.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.