Yesterday, a new set of regulations and a punishment system went live on Sina Weibo, China’s largest Twitter-like service, in a move that could usher in a period in which Chinese Internet users are more restricted online than ever before.
While there was no obvious change to the popular platform for its users, Sina’s new system is taking China’s crackdown on social media and Internet sites to a new level, in response to the promotion of gossip and rumour.
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The following cartoon, published by the state-run online television network CNTV, compares online rumours to grenades, suggesting that this might just be the beginning of a more intense period of restrictions on sites like Sina Weibo.
As China Media Project (CMP) explains, the grenades are actually labelled “online rumours” – leaving no doubt about the state’s view of the ‘dangers’ of the Web.
Sina’s new system is a clear effort to go beyond existing censorship tactics — which include deleting messages and blocking trending terms and searches — and it is tipped to see a clamp down on users that have previously skirted Weibo censorship using puns and codewords, rather than obviously identifiable keywords.
Sina has signed up thousands of users to help voluntarily police the platform and spot those that breach the new terms, and CMP further explains how the punishment system will work:
According to the regulations, users logging more than 5 posts of “sensitive information” would be prevented from posting for 48 hours and have the relevant content deleted. Further, those users posting “sensitive content” with “malicious intent” would be prevented from posting for more than 48 hours and face the possibility of having their account terminated.
Already two users have been found guilty of spreading false rumours, as the Wall Street Journal explains, and the incidents are recorded publicly on a dedicated community page. The government is particularly wary of political rumours, but neither of these incidents fall under that bracket.
Chinese authorities made a landmark decision to act on Internet rumours in April, following speculation of a political coup. The ‘punishment’ handed down saw the comment feature on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo deactivated for three days to allow the services to be ‘cleaned’.
That move came after the state also launched a real-name verification rule aimed at ensuring that all microbloggers register their accounts using official ID, to make them more accountable for the content that they posting.
The Chinese government is wary of social media and Internet sites as they challenge its control of information. In past times, the state enjoyed greater control over the release of news, but this is a model that social media has fundamentally disrupted, as the case of the 2011 Wenzhou train crash shows.
China’s three largest Web firms recently publicly pledged to fight online rumours, but the government is likely to continue to apply pressure to Internet companies to better self-regulate their platforms, as it bids to restrict the power of the Web.
Whether or not it can tame the Internet to any degree is a separate subject that is worthy of a entirely new discussion, of course.