In China, the official media have to toe the Communist Party line, but China’s social media is a pretty freewheeling place, with half a billion users.
That’s especially true of the micro-blogging site Sina Weibo, which is like the Chinese version of Twitter.
Justin Bieber may have a record-breaking 46 million Twitter followers. But Chinese movie star and singer Chen Kun has 61 million followers on Weibo. Chen is what’s known as a big V — V for Weibo-verified. Posts by big Vs can spark a wildfire of criticism and outrage — some of it aimed at public officials.
That’s troubling to Chinese authorities. This past summer, Beijing began cracking down on what it calls online rumor-mongering. Critics call Beijing's actions censorship.
According to Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei.com, which tracks Chinese media, Beijing’s anti-rumor campaign is really about controlling what’s said on social media, especially if it might lead to protests, and that’s put the big Vs in the line of fire.
“The thinking is you have to sometimes show an iron hand,” Goldkorn says. “You have to crush a few cockroaches to make the other ones scurry away.”
One of the first to get crushed, says Goldkorn, was Charles Xue.
Xue is a grey-haired Chinese American investor and philanthropist with more than 12 million Weibo followers. He posted about official corruption, and publicized cases of poor Chinese who couldn’t afford medical treatment. But he fell afoul of authorities.
In a confession aired on prime time state TV, Xue appeared in a prison vest, telling investigators he fielded hundreds of requests by followers every day to publicize their problems.
“I felt like an emperor reviewing administrative documents,” he said in the confession. “Most of the time, I didn’t check whether those Weibo posts were true or not.”
Officially, Xue was detained on suspicion of paying for sex. But under a new Chinese law, passed this summer, you can now go to jail for three years if you post false and defamatory rumors, if they are reposted more than 500 times. So people like Zhu Dake, a professor and culture critic at Tong Ji University in Shanghai, take precautions. His Weibo account has nearly 100,000 followers.
Zhu says he’s always careful to post information that originates with official media outlets; then he adds his own comment.
He’s still worried, though. He says the law against spreading online rumors is like “a noose that will continue to tighten.”
But Goldkorn, of Danwei, thinks it won’t have the desired effect.
“Chinese Internet users are too numerous and too obstreperous to be silenced by a campaign like this,” he says.
The official media essentially remain propaganda organs, Goldkorn adds, and the Chinese know it, so they’re inclined to trust almost any rumor over the government’s line.
“They’ve frightened some people into being a bit more quiet, I imagine," says Goldkorn, "But they haven’t convinced anybody in the public that the official sources of information are any more trustworthy, and that’s the problem they’re going to have to deal with sooner or later.”
In addition, the Chinese government itself relies on social media to track public opinion. Critics say the anti-rumor campaign is about curbing commentary that might threaten social stability — not about fact-checking the Internet.
Soon after Charles Xue’s televised mea culpa, police arrested a 16-year-old boy who used social media to criticize the handling of an apparent suicide. The teenager speculated the dead man was actually thrown from the roof of a karaoke club, and that police were covering it up. He was charged with spreading rumors and inciting demonstrations. But netizens were incensed, and they took to Weibo to vent.
A week later, the teenager was released.