– China cracks down on microblogging rumours that are ‘worse than cocaine’ (Guardian, Dec. 6, 2011):
Official Chinese media say that rumours spread on popular microblogging sites are damaging to society
Online rumours are drugs that damage users and harm society, the Chinese state media have claimed, as officials step up attempts to rein in the country’s hugely popular microblogs.
One commentary, published by the official Xinhua news agency, warns that while heroin and cocaine damage health, internet rumours are worse because they “poison the social environment and affect social order”.
Another, on People’s Daily Online, is titled: “Internet rumours are drugs: please resist and stay away from them.” It calls for zero tolerance, suggests they “damage people and society” as narcotics do, and accuses rumour-mongers of having ulterior motives and “kidnapping public opinion”.
The intensification of attacks on “rumours” emerged as officials said they had detained several people for spreading rumours online and amid increasing controls on microblogs, which have been urging users to register their real names and deleting accounts deemed to have crossed the line.
China has 300 million registered microblog users and while services are censored – blocking prevents sensitive terms from being posted, and other material is often deleted – authorities are increasingly concerned at the speed at which information can spread.
Microblogs have spread news of protests, exposed scandals and became the locus of public outrage at the high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou this summer.
Weeks later, a senior official visited the headquarters of Sina, which runs the biggest microblogging service, and urged internet companies to prevent the spread of false and harmful information.
Charles Chao, chief executive of Sina, said subsequently that it was establishing more mechanisms to quash rumours.
David Bandurski, of Hong Kong University’s China media project, said the new commentaries, with their “patina of moral decadence”, were “helping to whip up an atmosphere where it’s easier to tackle social media … It’s part of a general campaign to put more pressure on microblogs”.
While some posts are implausible or demonstrably wrong – such as claims of major earthquakes – others are far harder to assess.
Many internet users fear the drive against “rumours” will also be used to suppress sensitive stories and justified criticism of officials.
The first Xinhua commentary accuses some users of making up scandals about officials and others of inventing and spreading disturbing news “under the guise of caring about the public … for the purpose of provoking trouble and disrupting society”.
Bandurski added: “At its base, this is about news control. That’s what creates an atmosphere where nothing is believable and nothing is believed, and the government just has to say something for people to believe it’s not true.”
The Beijing-based internet analyst Bill Bishop said in a blog about the pieces: “The language in these articles has echoes of campaigns and crackdowns from an earlier era.
“The comparisons to drugs and drug dealing, sometimes a capital offence in China, may be a sign of an impending harsh crackdown on those who spread internet rumours.”
On Sunday, the state information office announced that it had detained several people for inventing a rumour that HIV positive people and Aids patients were lacing restaurant food with their blood.
“Illegal spreading of false information online violates internet order and harms the public interest,” the head of the office’s bureau of network news told the Global Times newspaper, saying that authorities were building a “healthy and orderly” online environment.
A judge told the newspaper that people could be fined about 500 yuan (£50) for spreading rumours, while those deliberately fabricating or disseminating false and harmful information faced up to five years in jail.
Sina has set up a round-the-clock “rumour control” team and has begun issuing warnings to users judged to have crossed the line and suspending and deleting accounts.
It is trying to encourage people to register in their real names by adding a “medal of honour” for users who provide details for police checks.