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Nitin Pai: China's war on rumour

The microblogging service Weibo has proliferated to such an extent that it is straining China's vast censorship infrastructure

Nitin Pai 

Nitin Pai

It's not a good time to be a prominent microblogger in China. One such microblogger, an outspoken Chinese-American investor, was shown on television dressed in prison uniform admitting to having visited prostitutes. Another, a billionaire venture capitalist, was detained on suspicion of "gathering crowds to disturb social order". A third, an articulate real estate magnate, was seen uncharacteristically stuttering on television while calling for more "responsible" online behaviour.

The Chinese Communist Party regime has launched a new "war against rumour", which involves, among other offensives, prison terms of up to three years for internet users whose rumour-mongering or slanderous posts are seen by 5,000 people or reposted 500 times.

That's a very low bar in a country with over 550 million internet users, around a tenth of whom use Weibo, the most popular microblogging platform (known as China's Twitter). Top users - like the ones mentioned above - have millions of followers each.

The latest move has already started having an effect. Posts by influential microbloggers dropped by 11.2 per cent per day over the last month. One activist has documented 42 round-ups and 450 detentions of internet users in the four weeks since President Xi Jinping called for the party propaganda department to set a "strong army to seize ground of new media".

Yet it would be misleading to believe that it is Mr Xi who is responsible for a tightening of internet controls in China. The "war on rumour" is just the latest in a consistent policy of ensuring that the Communist Party is firmly in control of the internet and dominates the Chinese online public sphere. Technology and psychology are the two instruments it uses for this purpose. It prefers to use technology - firewalls, filters and censorship - where possible. However, it is not shy of using psychology - essentially scaring people into self-censorship - where technological tools are inadequate for the job.

Weibo has proliferated to such an extent that it is straining China's vast censorship infrastructure. Service providers are required to employ human censors who are supposed to sift through hundreds of posts every minute that algorithms tag for review. Censors act swiftly. An analysis by Tao Zhu and colleagues found that "deletions happen most heavily in the first hour after a post has been submitted. Focusing on original posts, not reposts/retweets, [they] observed that nearly 30 per cent of the total deletion events occur within 5-30 minutes. Nearly 90 per cent of the deletions happen within the first 24 hours."

There is a price for this kind of efficiency. A recent Reuters report shows that the young men employed for this purpose work long shifts and many burn out quickly. As the number of users and posts grows, it becomes harder for censors to keep pace. The need for human intervention arises because internet users often outsmart automatic filters by coining euphemisms and code words on the fly. Five minutes - the time it takes for a censor to delete a post - is far too long to prevent a viral spread of information from microbloggers with hundreds of thousands of followers.

The speed and scale of social media might have overwhelmed censorship mechanisms. An enquiry by Harvard University's Gary King revealed that two to three censors were needed for every 50,000 users. By this measure, Sina Weibo would need 2,000 to 3,000 censors. Reuters says it employs only 150.

Until censorship technology catches up, therefore, Beijing must use psychology. Scaring celebrity microbloggers and rounding up less famous ones in their hundreds are, at the margin, likely to have the intended chilling effect on online speech.

No one believes that China is going to such extents to prevent rumours like the availability of dead baby soup in Guangdong or punish social media marketing scams. The intent is political. Mao might have quipped that power grows out of the barrel of a gun, but his successors know that to retain both they must control information. This has three purposes: to ensure the dominance of the Communist Party's grand narrative; to keep citizens from forming online communities; and to counter political mobilisation.

Soon after the internet first arrived in China in the mid-1990s, Beijing commenced work on the Golden Shield Project (popularly known as the Great Firewall of China), which blocked content that the government did not want its citizens to access. Hardly was this project completed than the second generation of the world wide web gave shape to social media platforms like Weibo, whose growth has posed new challenges to Beijing. Under the previous president, Hu Jintao, the government attempted responses that were considered ham-handed even by Chinese standards. It had to backtrack in the face of both public outcry and intra-party factional strife.

For their part, China's internet users have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with their government for almost two decades. Over the years, anti-government and pro-reform voices have grown in number and influence. They are still too few and too weak to challenge the Communist Party's hold on power. The party is determined to keep it that way.

If it can't block them, it'll terrorise them.


The writer is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think tank

First Published: Sun, September 15 2013. 21:49 IST
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