Chinese AI censors live-streamed Alpacas – beasts with a very NSFW and political back story

Be alert, not a-llam-ed


Douyin, the Chinese app known as TikTok in the rest of the world, is apparently censoring Alpacas.

Yes, Alpacas, the llama-related beasties that produce lovely wool and can be quite cute.

So cute that a few Chinese citizens manage to make a little cash live-streaming vision of their coiffed and costumed alpacas on Douyin.

But as reported in Rest of World, some of those Douyin users have recently found it hard to stream because the platform boots them off after a minute or two of Alpaca action. We're told that searching for “Alpaca” on Douyin produces news of a campaign to protect wildlife and suggests that the app’s AI may have mistakenly decided that Alpacas are a protected creature that ought not to be subjected to the rigours of live web broadcasts.

It’s possible that Douyin’s AI is glitching.

But the Alpaca has another meaning in China – as a symbol of resistance to internet censorship.

The creatures took on that unlikely role thanks to a pun on the mandarin words cào nǐ mā, which translate into a very crude term involving sex and your mother. Cào nǐ mā also sounds very like the words for “grass mud horse”, so it was applied to Alpacas.

Which is why in 2019 a Yorkshire Alpaca farm reported it was pleasantly surprised to have attracted strangely large numbers of Chinese tourists.

The tourists came to take photos that let them use a naughty word on social media. And to pat cute Alpacas.

“Cào nǐ mā” is rude enough that it seldom makes it through Chinese internet filters. But the characters for the translation of “Alpaca” do. Images of Alpacas therefore became a meme because Chinese viewers of a social media post featuring an Alpaca know very well they're seeing something naughty, but also know they have plausible cover for their actions. Alpacas therefore became an unlikely symbol for circumventing China's pervasive online censorship.

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei even published a photo of himself naked, save for a toy Alpaca covering his genitals. He captioned the work “A Grass Mud Horse covering the center”. He also published an odd “Gangnam Style” parody video titled “Caonima Style” - a pun on "Cào nǐ mā" - that includes him dancing while handcuffed.

The Register has accounts with some Chinese social media services and used a VPN to pretend to be in Hong Kong. We were easily able to search for and find Alpacas online today on Chinese social media and when pretending to surf from Hong Kong.

So maybe the “AI can be a stupid sometimes” theory is all there is to the Alpaca streaming stoppages.

But make no mistake: Alpacas are considered a menace to China’s internet. And that’s surely something to be a-llama-ed about. ®

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