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Home  /  Inside China  /  Fighting rumors: A new way to supervise the Chinese internet sphere
Fighting rumors: A new way to supervise the Chinese internet sphere print version
The Chinese government is adjusting to the growing Cyberspace, while it is adopting new precautions against some forms of political expression. Chinese social networks and the Sina Weibo in particular, are being referred to as a tool to spread 'false rumors', in an attempt to prevent the public from giving too much power the social-internet realm.
While Chinese social network and instant messaging services are gaining popularity, as the Chinese Netizen population is surpassing half a billion, the Chinese government is learning how to appreciate and utilize the growing popularity of the novel expression formats, while adopting new precautions.

The service in the Chinese internet realm that receives much attention in the last year is the Sina Weibo instant messaging service, due to its exclusive niche and the growing importance attached to it by the Chinese media (see here a recent article about the Sina Weibo). Like any internet domain, some terms and issues (Tibet, Falun Gong, etc) are considered too sensitive by the State Internet Information Office, an agency under the Chinese State Council. Sina employs about 700 censors, who receive orders from the Chinese government, while trying to maintain a high level of Weibo user freedom.

The dynamics between Sina and the State Council isn't only a 'rope pulling competition' (in which the government can make the last stand). Unlike the stereotypes attached to it, the Chinese government also benefits from the self-expression which Weibo invites. Weibo can be monitored to observe trends in public opinions, to popularize ideas and to read reports from Netizens located far away from the government's grasp. Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore and author of the book Technological Empowerment: The Internet, State, and Society in China, claims that while the government insists on limiting the expression of some ideas through the cyberspace, it still encourages Netizens to report corruption of local government officials, allowing the central government to exercise supervision in a low-resource fashion.

Although Weibo invites the expression of opinions, the government is constantly alert not to let this format induce any kind of social instability. Lately, the fierce reactions of Netizens after the 23/7/2011 Wenzhou train accident, resulted in some discomfort among the Chinese leadership and new debates about the supervision of Weibo. While it is difficult to state whether Weibo censorship has gone up a notch since, the Chinese government and media find various other methods to criticize and limit the freedom that some users exercise through the Weibo or other social networks.

For example, Xinhua News Agency published earlier this month a survey-article, under the headline 'Internet is public's major source of rumors: survey' (an English version of the item can be read here), expressing the public's understanding of the dangers in internet freedom, supported by politicians' demand that internet companies restrict the spreading of 'false rumors'. Spreading 'rumors' and 'false news' is also becoming a felony, which can result in up to 10 days in prison and 500 RMB fine.

Does the attack of 'rumors' (yaoyan 谣言) indicate that the State Internet Information Office's focus is shifting from sensitive political terms to other issues the can induce instability, merely due to their falsehood and dramatic potential? Or is the new focus on rumors a way to implement new internet expression restrictions, without making the government seem like it is trying to protect its political interests? Both options are somewhat correct: People who post false news, on any subject, can create panic and unwanted 'false alarms' on one hand, while on the other, the attack on rumors is allowing the government to reinforce its domination, convincing the public that more conservative internet expression is ultimately in the best of the Chinese society.

The Chinese government prosecutors would claim that China is still trying to repress any risk of an oriental 'Jasmine Revolution', while their defenders would say that even the British government has acknowledged the danger social network could bring upon, after the recent London riots.

In any case, it seems that the government concern regarding internet expression is shifting from monitoring specific sensitive terms to a more widespread promotion of authentic internet 'reports', and that creating public awareness on this matter is becoming a more widespread governmental approach, preventing the cyberspace from turning into an uncontrollable monster.   

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