Have you Heard? China's Crackdown on Online "Rumors"

Have you Heard? China's Crackdown on Online "Rumors"

China leads the way when it comes to controlling online content. A push to counteract messaging that differs from “official” interpretation of events has spurred a wave of crackdowns that started in August, publically justified by the government as preventing the spread of online "rumors”.

Authorities have escalated their campaign against "cybercrime,” designed to prevent “hearsay” and “gossip” from spreading rapidly online, culminating in the arrests of hundreds of activists.

Prominent activist Murong Xuecun in a NYT op-ed stated that, “the vast state censorship apparatus works hard to keep us down. But posts race through Weibo so quickly that it’s difficult to control them with technology. Hence, the government is resorting to detainment.”

Chinese authorities utilize a number of methods for exorcising “bad” speech in its online communities. For over a decade, the government has been employing a task force to publish regime-friendly comments online in an effort to manipulate public opinion.  This force has become known as the 50 Cent Army, which pays homage to the rumored 50 cents of Renminbi paid per comment (though in a rare moment of transparency, the government budgets have listed “Internet opinion analysts” as official occupations, most notable at the China Employment Training Technical Instruction Center). In 2012, real name registration came into effect -- requiring web users to register their given name and national identification name with provider sites before posting comments.

The “campaign against cybercrime” has reached new heights in targeting those “perpetrate rumours” in China’s online communities. This provision has paved the way for mass arrests of outspoken netizens across the country, including the Big V’s-- microbloggers known for online activism. An August 24th editorial stated that popular bloggers who “poison the online environment” should be “dealt with like rats scurrying across the street that everyone wants to kill.”

Arrests have also spread amongst China’s Uighur population.  July and August were marked by a government movement against “religious extremist content on the internet” in the Xinjiang province.  Fearing a militant, religious uprising, police arrested 139 people for spreading “jihadist” sentiments and posting religious content online, according to state-run media.

Recent escalations in arrests begets the question of what qualifies one’s speech as so called “rumor mongering”. China’s Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate has issued a judicial guideline stating that “anyone who deliberately posts defamatory lies and rumors against individuals or the government may face up to three years imprisonment if their posts are shared more than 500 times or viewed by more than 5,000 people.” It is not clear yet whether and how these new laws are enforced but they certainly do not bode well for the country’s netizens.  

Following the recent car crash in Tiananmen Square, China’s censors have even removed innocuous accounts of what happened including those from mainstream media sources. According to Tea Leaf Nation, “a search on Freeweibo.com, which tracks deleted Weibo posts, shows that many related tweets from widely-followed sources were removed so fast that they were able to generate only a handful of comments. One Weibo user complained, ‘Just because it’s Tiananmen, all related images have been deleted; is this necessary?’”

And the Chinese government’s effort to tighten control over public opinion and the web marches on.

lbeck and ldudden contributed to this post.