China tackles the messy world of microblogs

Yesterday the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper ran an editorial by Yang Jian (杨健) addressing the issue of the so-called “anti-rumor league,” or piyao lianmeng, a group of online rumor busters who have advertised themselves as truth-seeking vigilantes out to identify and neutralize untruths in China’s burgeoning microblog sphere.

The informal group, which of course has its own microblog, has been around for more than two months. But in recent days they have been at the center of an ongoing controversy — playing out online, of course, but also in traditional media — about what counts for truth, and what constitutes rumor, in the messy world of social media.


[ABOVE: The official microblog account of the so-called "anti-rumor league" at Sina Weibo.]

While the group says its goal is to “do our bit to clean up the public opinion ecology of the microblogs,” many Chinese have accused them of official bias — the way, for example, they seem to turn a blind eye to falsehoods perpetuated in Party-run media. Others have voiced a more visceral objection to the term piyao itself, which reminds many of the way local government leaders in particular in China have long tossed out the accusation of “rumor” to cover up their own misdeeds.

The People’s Daily editorial, “In the Microblog Age, How Do We Refute Rumors,” is actually quite even-handed in discussing the rise of social media and its implications. The piece describes the advances in information and public opinion brought about by microblogs with a sense of acceptance and inevitability, noting that while some see them as pandering rumor mills, they “have undeniable characteristics of media” and “have already definitely become an important source for news for other media.”

There are now quite a few news stories and editorials out there in Chinese dealing with this issue from various angles. For example, a piece on the front page of today’s China Youth Daily newspaper (below), which argues that the business of rumor busting must itself be carried out in an “objective” and “neutral” manner.


[ABOVE: An editorial on the front page (below the large photograph) of today's China Youth Daily newspaper, published by the Communist Youth League of China, argues that rumor-busting must be free of prejudice.]

In a further illustration of the circularity of information sharing and exchange in China today, the China Youth Daily piece itself has been widely shared and commented upon on microblogs today, as have other traditional media takes on the issue.

Not far behind this debate over the truth and over the power of social media is recent furor over the government’s handling of the July 23 high-speed rail collision in Wenzhou. While of course not the only recent story in which microblogs have played a crucial role, the public opinion storm that blew between July 23 and July 30 was a clear illustration — and for leaders, no doubt a concerning one — of just how instrumental social media now are in China.

It remains to be seen how Chinese leaders will balance their clear and uncompromising priority of maintaining controls on information — “guidance of public opinion” — against the emerging maturity of platforms like Sina Microblog. It is a delicate balance, to be sure.

On that note, we turn to an editorial in today’s edition of Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily. The piece is a good look at some of the essential fault lines in this debate over rumor, truth and openness.

Readers should also note the reference at the end to the recently-released “Opinions Concerning the Deepening of Openness of Government Affairs and Strengthening Service in Government Affairs” (关于深化政务公开加强政务服务的意见).

Bringing an End to Rumor in the Weibo Age Needs Freedom of Information

On August 10, the People’s Daily ran an article on the recently hot issue of the “anti-rumor league” and offered its own affirmation of online public opinion’s “fair system of self-cleansing” (良好自净机), expressing the belief that microblogs had led the way in promoting the public’s right to know, right to express, right to participate and right to monitor. The arguments in the article were basically fair, quite different from a number of previous [writings and reports in the media] that cast blame on microblogs on the basis of so-called “rumors.”

Microblogs, and even the whole phenomenon of the internet, are already topics that are unavoidable in understanding and describing contemporary Chinese society. The internet has increasingly become a daily necessity of life for each and every ordinary person. All traditional social issues and discussions have already undergone a simple initial process of inscription whereby they are “reflected to some degree on the internet.” The internet now initiates, guides and promotes change in real society, something getting more and more common and taking on unusual importance. With the introduction and application of each form of new internet technology comes the hope that traditional bounds will be broken, and with the arrival of microblogs, this situation has accelerated in China. The personal media quality of microblogs . . . has allowed them within an exceptionally short period of time to become the principal tool by which Chinese internet users express their thoughts and feelings on current affairs and the world around them.

One topic of discussion that has perhaps never ceased [in the midst of these changes] has been how to judge the veracity of information as people use microblogs to comment, share and draw common attention (围观) to information. And when certain untrue information is broadcast and amplified on the internet, how can we clean up the negative impact of this? In this process, the single-handed “anti-rumor Party” has developed into the collective action of the “anti-rumor league” (辟谣联盟). which “by its own support” (自带干粮) has advertised itself as “serving the truth” (为真相服务). This behavior, which on the surface seems something that the vast majority of internet users might approve of, has been attended all along with controversy and reproach. It has been mocked, despised and doubted. But we must realize that this is not at odds with the desire everyone has for the truth.

In times when the truth is wanting, people will hunger even more for the truth. And at the same time as the internet has afforded people a new tool of expression and transmission [of information], one precondition of the opening up of expression is that mechanisms are found to ensure self-cleansing (自净). The objective of this online self-cleansing is making clear what information is objective, reasonable and neutral. But the path chosen by the “anti-rumor Party” is clearly different. The reason why the “anti-rumor league” has been subjected to so much denunciation is because it is selective in its rumor busting. It targets only “popular rumor” (民谣) and has no interest in “official rumor” (官谣), and in this process it takes official government formulations as the basis and starting point of its rumor busting. This fatal selective blindness has already become, and will possibly continue to be, the Achilles heel of the “anti-rumor league.”

. . .

Recently the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the General Office of the State Council printed and distributed [the notice] “Opinions Concerning the Deepening of Openness of Government Affairs and Strengthening Service in Government Affairs” (关于深化政务公开加强政务服务的意见) emphasizing the importance of open information, and emphasizing especially that event of major sudden-breaking incidents and problems of concern to the people, the circumstances of the event must be released, answering public concerns in a timely, accurate and comprehensive manner. This policy released at a critical moment no doubt has clear guiding importance, and it answers from one angle the people’s demand to be informed of public information resources (公共信息资源), and it fits in its objectives with the consensus among people that they must themselves work in pursuit of the truth. Only in an environment in which information can flow freely can rumor and falsehood be stripped away. When society begins to respect and trust in the fact that everyone is entitled to make their own independent judgements about information, preserving the right to know and express for all, only then will the truth emerge.

One Comment to “China tackles the messy world of microblogs”

  1. Bill Rich says:

    How come no civilized country need to deal with microblog, or txting, or twitters, except warning government officials and politicians not to say stupid stuff on them ?

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