In China, tweeting rumors can now land you three years in jail…or worse


top-73-censored-weiboThe latest barrage from the government in China’s ongoing war on rumors came yesterday, when China’s Supreme Court announced in a clarifying document that any post “clicked and viewed more than 5000 times, or reposted more than 500 times” will be considered serious defamation. The court document itself does not specific a sentence, but defamation in general is punishable by up to three years in prison.

But that’s just for regular defamation. According to the document, posting untrue information online can also be considered “gravely harming social order and national interests” if it meets any one of a variety of conditions, including: “triggering a mass incident”, “triggering chaos”, “triggering ethnic or religious conflict”, “slandering numerous people and creating a negative social influence”, “harming the national image, seriously harming national interests”, etc. Posting content that meets any of these conditions might well result in a sentence much longer than three years.

Needless to say, Chinese net users are not happy about the new regulations. They obviously have severe implications for free speech, and not just political speech. In an online environment when fans, followers, and retweets on Sina Weibo and WeChat can all be easily purchased from online PR firms, these laws could be fairly easily exploited to punish one’s enemies. For example, Beijing lawyer Hu Yihua satirically posted:

From now on, whenever anyone says anything bad about me, I’ll just get zombie followers to view their post 5,000 times or repost it 500 times and get them sent to prison.

Others have pointed out the absurd hypocrisy of the new regulations; a newspaper article that is viewed 5,000 times and ultimately proves to contain erroneous information is not generally considered grounds to imprison the author for three years. Indeed, state media outlets publish inaccurate, biased, or misleading information on a somewhat regular basis, and yet the authors are not arrested.

Having personally been the victim of attempted character assassination on Sina Weibo, I understand perhaps better than most the upside of laws like this, at least in theory. In reality, though, I fear the new laws will be used to cow social media users into silence, and probably also used as a weapon for well-connected people to attack political or business rivals, rather than as a way of enforcing any actual standard of truth online. If China’s government was to be held to the same high standards of truth as regular web users will be, I don’t think I’d have much to say about this. But in a country where the court system is controlled by the ruling party, the government is not truly answerable to its own laws, and as a result these regulations will serve only to further restrict China’s online social discourse.

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

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