Rumor-mongering: China’s crackdown on online rumors leaves much unanswered

by claire mcnear

China has continued its crackdown on social media with policies aimed at curbing the spread of rumors online and in private messaging apps.

On August 11, Chinese state media announced that authorities had detained a man in the restive Xinjiang region. Police alleged that he bypassed the Great Firewall to post a grisly – and purportedly false – account on “overseas websites” of a bloody attack that took place in western Xinjiang on July 28 and left nearly 100 – including 59 terrorists, according to the government – dead. The state was slow to release details about the attack, taking days to confirm that it had taken place at all.

Days earlier, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that 85 people had been arrested or detained for spreading rumors online, ranging from earthquake predictions to reports of gunfire in Beijing. According to Xinhua, the accused individuals had “used social network services to fabricate and spread rumours, or forward rumours published on foreign websites.” Four now face charges of defamation.

The crackdown on rumor-mongering has coincided with, and may in part have spurred, a shift from ultra-popular microblogging services like Sina Weibo to private messaging apps like WeChat. Experts have cautioned that the migration to these services may muffle the challenges to government authority for which Weibo has been known, as in the aftermath of a 2011 train accident in Wenzhou that killed 40 people. In that case, expressions of grief and allegations that corruption and cronyism had played a role in the deadly crash overwhelmed censors on Weibo and other blogging services, leading many to view Weibo as a formidable opponent to state censorship and media control.

Now, as many Chinese netizens begin to rely on communication services that are out of the public eye, they may risk greater intervention from the government, which announced in May that WeChat would be more heavily monitored and rolled out new restrictions earlier this month, including the requirement for users to register with their real names. Only official media accounts may publish political news.

In Russia, the controversial new blogger law, introduced this month, also takes aim at rumors. The law requires any individual with 3,000 or more followers to register with the state as media, subjecting them to a range of regulations including responsibility for the accuracy of information in posts as well as comments. The regulation extends to bloggers as well as social media account holders.

Last week's arrest in Xinjiang highlights the difficulty of determining whether a rumor is in fact false or is spread with any kind of malicious intent. Beijing has released very little information about the July attack, and declined to offer details about the illicit – and, allegedly, false – account offered by the 22-year-old arrested by police. In the case of Wenzhou rail crash, eyewitness accounts posted to Weibo played a large role in uncovering the scandal.

The stakes of the crackdown are even higher as more tech companies begin to store their data on servers in countries with more restrictive laws. Last week, Apple announced that it had migrated some Chinese user data to servers in China provided by state-owned China Telecom. While Apple credited increased speed and reliability for the change, many believe that the move could force the company to surrender user information to the government. Other tech companies have refused to store data in China for this reason: Google has long declined to do so as a result of “censorship and privacy concerns,” according to Reuters.

China has responded by blocking many foreign social media services. On August 7, China blocked messaging apps KakaoTalk, which is Korean, and Japan’s Line because of the circulation of “terrorism-related information.” Foreign social networking software was banned last month.

Russia is waging its own battle to compel tech companies to keep their data within the Kremlin’s reach. Last month, the Russian parliament continued a government crackdown on the web with the passage of a law requiring tech companies to store their data within Russian borders beginning in 2016. Companies that refuse to do so will be blocked.