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China: Battle over the spread and deletion of “rumors”

Categories: China, Activism, Internet governance

The China propaganda machine continues to launch the war against “rumors” distributing via social media. However, many still believe that people will eventually win in this online battle.

Yesterday People's Daily had a featured article on “Internet rumors harm people and harm our society. The public must not believe or transmit rumors”. The article has made a list of harmful rumors (translated by DANWEI):

1. A text message that read: “Family, classmates, friends, don’t eat tangerine oranges! This year the tangerines from Guangyuan (Sichuan Province), have maggots under their peal. Sichuan buried a large batch and sprinkled them with lime.” This SMS was forwarded from phone to phone, and reported by news sources. It led to a massive drop in the price of tangerines across the country, and a loss of RMB 1.5 billion for the agriculture industry.

2. Rumors that an earthquake was going to happen in Shanxi, also started by an SMS message. The article lists a number of people involved in spreading the message, many of whom were detained for 10 days and fined 500 yuan.

3. Rumors about an explosion at a chemical plant in Xiangshui (Jiangsu province). This caused panic and 4 people were killed in a car accident trying to escape.

4. A website posted that some unscrupulous businessmen were mixing leather waste, animal hair and other substances with their milk powder in order to raise the protein level.

5. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake on the east coast of Japan, near the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, spurred a rumor on QQ that Chinese people would be exposed to radiation. This caused a run on the salt market as people believed iodized salt could prevent or treat health problems caused by exposure to radioactive materials. The price of salt shot up. The person charged with starting the rumor was detained for 10 days and fined 500 yuan.

6. Someone impersonated the State Administration of Taxation to announce a revision of several provisions related to personal income-tax.

7. Students at Chongqing Jiaotong University College of Civil Engineering and Architecture spread a rumor about acupuncture needles being too hot.

8. Rumors that the HIV virus could be transmitted through food. The rumor spread via SMS and QQ. People who played critical roles in disseminating the message have been identified.

9. On February 21, 2012, microblog user “Mirador Ma Ma” wrote that a new mutated version of the SARS virus has emerged. The blog spread quickly, and caused mass panic. According to the law, the people responsible for disseminating this rumor were sentenced to two years of education through labor.

10. The ‘military vehicles arrived in Beijing’ rumor that spread in March 2012: According to the law, 6 people have been detained for fabricating and maliciously spreading these rumors.

The cracking down of online rumors is so hard handed that most of the micro-blogs that I collected via Sina Weibo were deleted. Below is a screen capture of my blog collection box yesterday:

It seems that I have a distinctive taste for online “rumors” even though the posts that I had collected are not as political as the scandals around Bo Xilai. They were about the the death toll of Finless Porpoise in Dongting Lake and the discussion about the recent scandal of toxic gell caps. Yet it won't be difficult for me to retrieve the content either by searching in Weibo or the users’ content backup in Twitter.

That's probably the reason why dissident such as Ai Weiwei is still optimistic about people's victory in the internet battle:

China may seem quite successful in its controls, but it has only raised the water level. It's like building a dam: it thinks there is more water so it will build it higher. But every drop of water is still in there. It doesn't understand how to let the pressure out. It builds up a way to maintain control and push the problem to the next generation.

It still hasn't come to the moment that it will collapse. That makes a lot of other states admire its technology and methods. But in the long run, its leaders must understand it's not possible for them to control the internet unless they shut it off – and they can't live with the consequences of that. The internet is uncontrollable. And if the internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It's as simple as that.