China’s Attempt to Banish Online Rumors is as Vague as the War On Terror

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The ‘Internet Society of China’ (ISC) has today released a paper entitled Written Proposal on Resisting Internet Rumors that aims to use a mixture of education and stricter regulations to prevent gossip and hearsay spreading across the tightly-controlled Chinese internet. Coming just nine days after authorities punished China’s two largest Twitter-like sites for failing to suppress political rumors, it comes across a lot like the much-vaunted “war on terror” whereby the Bush-era US government sought to defeat any rogue elements that might harm it.

Trouble is, both rumors and terrorism are abstract concepts, and you can’t win a war against a concept. And as an unjust war breeds a new generation of malcontents driven to extreme actions, so a new wave of internet clampdowns, regulations, and censorship will create even less transparency in Chinese politics and the web that might drive netizens to more conjecture and gossip. China’s microblogs, like Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, already have an expensively large crew of staffers engaged in self-censorship, deleting posts that contain keywords that threaten “social stability” (a new propaganda watch-word which is mentioned several times in today’s ISC paper) and banning users as well. On top of that there’s the newly-implemented ‘real name’ policy on the Weibo services that’s supposed to squash rumors by making people feel responsible – or scared? – about what they tweet to their microblogs. But, Sina (NASDAQ:SINA) and Tencent (HKG:0700) are swamped, and the punishment for most is just a deleted comment. Weibo users know this, and so are still engaging in gossip – even of a political nature – amidst the grim darkness of the lack of transparency in both government and news and web media who comply with all media regulations or else face being shut down.

And so a war on rumors is now underway, characterized by greater surveillance of ordinary folks as if everyone is somehow guilty. Just like how the war on terror massively bolstered the US and UK police state. But where the west has seen advanced face-recognition cameras, and full-body airport scanners, Chinese authorities already have all forms of media in a strangle-hold; it just needs to get a tighter grip. Trouble is, there’s not too much else that can be done – the recent false coup rumors saw the afore-mentioned Weibo clampdown on commenting along with six people arrested for propagating the initial rumor. What else is there? Arrest hundreds? Demand that Twitter-like sites have a built-in delay of a few minutes? Require people submit their tweets via fax to the local police bureau? OK, that last one is plain facetious. But how can progress be made in banishing rumors online when Chinese web users see no light, no progress, from authorities themselves?

8 Ways to Banish Rumors?

The ISC paper – see it here (in Chinese) – today puts forward eight points for how the web can be made to have only “a positive impact on economic, political, cultural and people’s lives,” and not engage in behavior that can cause “a major social nuisance, serious violations of civil rights, harm the public interest” or “also endanger national security and social stability.” Seven of the eight put the onus on web companies and people themselves, with little in the way of self-awareness that the media landscape might need to be altered as well. Here are all the pointers in summary:

  1. The first point in the white paper calls for a greater “awareness of the law” as it exists already along with tighter “industry self-regulation.”

  2. The next one gets more lyrical, suggesting that the web be geared towards promoting “Chinese culture, a socialist culture” and “healthy web content” such as “spreading scientific theories.” And while that’s great, it doesn’t address the human need for news.

  3. Enhance “social responsibility” of those working in online media to vet content, and greater “corporate social responsibility” to “resolutely cut off Internet rumors” on forums, microblog sites, and anywhere else online.

  4. “Strengthen internal control mechanisms” at web companies and ensure active “content screening.” Very similar to the third point, really.

  5. Employers should be encouraged to have their “website employees conscientiously fulfill their legal responsibility” in making an ethical and healthy web, and better “distinguish” those netizens who will be more likely to propagate rumors. Again, a lot of overlap with points three and four.

  6. All social media “shall comply with the government’s internet ‘real name’ authentication requirements” which are already in place on the major Weibo platforms.

  7. [Media/web companies] should “listen to the opinions of web users, and work hard to rectify the issued noted by the public.” Finally, a glimmer of awareness of what’s the root cause of the frustration of many on the web! But this seems superfluous alongside the calls for more efficient controls.

  8. “Strive towards the majority of internet users actively supporting web companies in resisting and banishing online rumors.” This is an especially vague one, and has the air of turkeys voting for Christmas.

And that, in all its vague and blustery glory, is all that the ISC paper has to offer.

To get an idea of how opaque things are – and getting worse by the year, to be frank – in both online and offline media, note that the official line on the recent Weibo punishment and arrests was deleted from the website of state news agency Xinhua. Here’s the blank page. Let’s not speculate why. But plenty of netizens are still writing, retweeting, and commenting on rumors – and precisely because it’s getting harder and harder to get objective news.

That leaves Sina and Tencent – and whichever web company will have the next social media success – struggling to sift false rumors (along with the very many keywords which are currently banned for utterly opaque reasons) from thousands of Weibo tweets per second. And that too sounds like an unwinnable war.

[Hat-tip to William Farris on G+ for spotting the ISC article]

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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