China's Government Goes After Those 'Spreading Rumors' Online

Weibo
Southern Weekend's fed-up editors publicly spoke out on Chinese microblogging site Weibo, claiming that the article allegedly written by Tuo Zhen, a provincial-level official, was "raping" the newspaper's autonomy. Reuters

China’s State Internet Information Office is launching a crackdown on people "spreading rumors" online, state-run Xinhua News reports.

The report quoted unnamed sources within the agency saying it is already investigating several groups of people for spreading Internet rumors.

One individual, identified in the report as Li, is accused of using a Weibo account to stir hysteria over the avian flu outbreak. The report said Li posted on Weibo that the H7N9 bird flu had spread to Guiyang, capital of southern Guizhou province, and was detained for five days by the Public Security Bureau. Another person, identified as Gong, who was also investigated for similar reasons, was apparently detained for 10 days.

An unnamed official told Xinhua that often photoshopped images and deceptively edited videos are used to slander individuals and distort the news.

The official added that Weibo's most influential, "verified" users, with tens of millions of followers, also play a part in deliberately spreading rumors. These leading personalities can “damage the credibility of the online media” by “disrupting” the orderly, and supposedly more accurate, dissemination of information. The report goes on to cite the public’s disdain for the spread of false information.

That's not how things are done in the United States, of course. Following last month’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, local news coverage of the manhunt was non-stop, as viewers continued to watch, looking for any new details. Though not intentionally, many false details were reported to the public largely due to social media. The spread of false information disrupted investigations, adding to the chaos as authorities were continuously pushed to confirm or deny reports.  

Still, the U.S. government does not have an Internet task force reprimanding all false tweets and false reports that came out of the Boston tragedy.

That being said, China is also a very different country.

On one hand the campaign shows that the government is recognizing the power of the Web, especially as more and more Chinese take part in social media. However, efforts to track down and reprimand the people spreading rumors or false information, known in Internet lingo as “trolls,” are unheard of in most Internet-savvy nations because it is a seemingly impossible task.

An editorial at the Chinese online paper Huangqi said the responsibility does not lie with the government, but rather Weibo’s big names.

“Often people [on Weibo] know that something is a rumor if there is no ‘V’ (the symbol of a verified user) to help forward it,” the editorial pointed out. “The destructive power of false information is greatly reduced.”

The more followers a given user has, the report says, “the more responsibility” he or she should exercise in using discretion about what information they push.

“The more influential they are, the more people need to be responsible for their words and actions.”

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