China cracks down on Internet rumors
Under growing government pressure, China’s leading micro-blogging service, Sina Weibo, launched a new effort to quash Internet rumors Friday by sending warnings to its users to ignore false reports.
The unusual move comes four days after Beijing’s Communist Party chief visited Sina Corp.'s headquarters and called for Internet companies to stop the spread of harmful and inaccurate information, which is seen as a threat to the government’s control.
Sina, which operates more than 200 million Twitter-like micro-blogs, sent at least two alerts Friday, one to dispel a rumor that the Red Cross Society of China was selling blood to hospitals for profit, the other to bust a claim that a 19-year-old woman’s murderer had been freed because of his father’s connections.
“For sending out false information, the user's account will be suspended and will not publish posts or be followed for one month,” the second alert said.
Micro-blogs, known in China as weibos, have been a thorn in the side of authorities as their popularity has grown in recent years. The medium has a massive casual following but has also been used to expose government scandals and disseminate articles, photographs and videos that would stand little chance of making it into state-controlled media.
The platform has been something of a nerve center for educated and tech-savvy Chinese, who have overwhelmingly embraced Sina, China’s first provider of micro-blogs. In 140 characters or fewer, users can express their opinions relatively freely to as wide an audience as they can attract. Celebrities and famous business figures attract millions of so-called followers.
But the government’s patience has been severely tested in recent months.
In early July, micro-blogs were abuzz with word that former Chinese President Jiang Zemin had died. Signals grew so strong that some foreign media outlets confirmed the sensitive rumor. But after several days, China’s state media refuted the story (though Jiang has still not been seen in public).
Later that month, micro-blogs helped galvanize widespread anger over official handling of a high-speed train collision in the eastern city of Wenzhou that killed 40 people.
For days, Internet users sent millions of posts fueling innuendo that authorities were hastily burying wreckage and rescue teams were missing survivors. Officials denied the rumors under a barrage of criticism.
Shortly after, China Central Television ran a report condemning rumors on micro-blogs as immoral –- an official shot across the bow for Sina and its competitors.
“Sina is probably using the messages to do two things,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, an expert in Chinese digital media, “make users think twice about posting scandalous or inflammatory information [and] to show the government that they are serious about controlling ‘rumors.’”
A spokesman for Sina said Friday that the company was stepping up efforts to silence intrigue and said programmers had devised a system to thwart what they felt were the most egregious rumors.
“We’re trying to do our best to be a stable and trustworthy platform,” said the spokesman, who gave only his last name, Mao. He declined to comment on government pressure.
Experts say it was only a matter of time before the government would scrutinize Sina because of its growing influence. It’s now in the unenviable position of trying to preserve and expand a highly popular tool while also being forced to diminish users’ freedoms.
Chinese Internet companies largely conduct their own censorship for the government, employing hundreds, if not thousands, to trawl content to remove offending material.
But asking Sina to identify rumors and disprove them on their own is an entirely new endeavor that could introduce new costs.
In February, Deutsche Bank cut its rating for the Nasdaq-listed Sina stock from “hold” to “sell” citing the risk of government regulation.
The site, which started primarily as a web portal, launched its weibo service two years ago and has seen its shares nearly triple in value. In the last three months alone the company has signed up nearly 80 million new micro-blog accounts.
Some of them may have been the thousands that mocked the latest campaign.
“There're so many rumors in the world. Do you really need to explain them to me one by one?” wrote a micro-blogger named WeMarketing. “In fact, without those announcements, I wouldn’t have even heard of those rumors.”
A micro-blogger named Xiqing Qiu wrote: “Can Sina stop sending me these announcements about anti-rumors? Is this a double negative denial? You think I'll believe you once you say it's a rumor?”
Ironically, the government’s tight control on information and media is largely cited as the reason China has been so susceptible to hearsay. The problem is anything but new.
One famous Chinese proverb, nearly 3,000 years old, says: “Trying to stop people’s mouths is like trying to stop a flood.”
Photo: An Internet cafe in Shanghai. Credit: Qilai Shen / Bloomberg News