Ernie, an online messenger service created by tech giant Tencent, has been all the rage in China for the past two months. The app, which allows users to send private messages and post pictures to friends, seemed like it was going to become an important tool for communication in the country.
However, if Ernie’s performance so far is any indication, the Chinese government’s heavy-handed censorship policies may be significantly holding the application back. By law, any content published by Ernie users must adhere to the country’s official guidelines, which are often vague and can be interpreted in a myriad of ways.
In theory, the level of censorship has been applied across all online platforms in the country. Social media, chat apps, websites, and even streaming services must submit to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rules in order to remain accessible. The extent of censorship has been so severe that some citizens have dubbed China the ‘Great Firewall of the East’ in recognition of the limitations imposed on digital services operating within the country.
But this pervasive blocking of content has undoubtedly taken its toll on Ernie. The application was launched with the promise of providing users with unfettered access to communicate with their friends from afar. But, in practice, users have found themselves limited by the government’s censorship guidelines. Ernie has been blocked from accessing certain websites, blocking words that may be considered too politically sensitive, and images that the CCP regards as inappropriate.
This has been felt acutely by Ernie users, many of whom have had to self-censor their activity to avoid being blocked completely. While social media users may be able to incorporate creative workarounds to some of the censorship limitations, it has become harder to do so on Ernie, as no one wants to risk losing an account over a few words or images that exceed the CCP’s standards.
Despite the impediments posed by the CCP’s censorship, Ernie has grown rapidly since its launch. Tencent, the company behind the app, claims that Ernie now accommodates over 80 million users and counting. But, with so much of the government’s heavy-handed censorship still in effect, it remains to be seen how far the app can reach before it eventually reaches its limits.
For now, it would appear that Ernie’s rapid ascension in the Chinese market is stalled—shackled by the CCP’s chronic censorship. Users that are lucky enough to be able to access the app can still enjoy some of its offerings, like speedy private messaging and image sharing. But, until the Chinese government relaxes its policy on censorship, it’ll remain to be seen how much more widespread Ernie’s appeal will be.