China Clamps Down on “False News” from Social Media

Reuters’ Ben Blanchard reports that the (CAC) is once again cracking down on the country’s with new rules prohibiting websites from publishing unverified news sourced from social media.

In a statement late on Sunday, the Cyberspace Administration of China said that online media cannot report any news taken from sites without approval.

“It is forbidden to use hearsay to create news or use conjecture and imagination to distort the facts,” it said.

“All levels of the cyberspace administration must earnestly fulfill their management responsibility for internet content, strengthen supervision and investigation, severely probe and handle fake and unfactual news,” the regulator added. [Source]

A number of major Chinese news websites, including those owned by Tencent and Sina, have already been punished by CAC this year for allegedly fabricating stories. Choi Chi-Yuk at South China Morning Post reports:

“All websites should bear the key responsibility to further streamline the course of reporting and publishing of news, and set up a sound internal monitoring mechanism among all mobile news portals [and the social media chat websites] Weibo or ,” Xinhua reported the directive as saying.

[…] “No website is allowed to report public news without specifying the sources, or report news that quotes untrue origins,” the circular warned, adding that the fabrication of news or distortion of the facts were also strictly prohibited.

The report said that a number of popular news portals, including Sina.com, Ifeng.com, Caijing.com.cn, Qq.com and 163.com, had been punished and given warnings for fabricating news before distributing it, the report said, without giving any details about the penalty. [Source]

The announcement is part of an ongoing government campaign against the spread of online rumors. According to guidelines released in 2013, internet users can face up to three years in prison if the “rumors” they post online are shared more than 500 times or viewed by more than 5,000 people. In 2015, the country’s criminal law was amended to include penalties for anyone convicted of spreading false information about disasters or other emergencies.

and hearsay posted on China’s dominant messaging app WeChat have also become prime targets for censors. The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernandez reported last week:

To the list of things that should not be uttered in modern China, add these: Padded bras cause cancer. The earth is on the brink of falling into a period of darkness for six days. Robots will soon conquer entire industries and eliminate the need for human labor.

These were among the seemingly trivial posts on WeChat, a popular messaging app, that have been censored, according to a study by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

[…] “Online rumors can be viewed as a kind of social protest by citizens skeptical of official news,” explained Jason Q. Ng, one of the Toronto researchers. [Source]

The current CAC crackdown is consistent with the broader direction of media regulation under President Xi Jinping, who has intensified measures to control both new and traditional media in China and called for state media organizations to bear the “Party surname.” China Media Project’s  has previously observed that this new media position put forth by Xi upends a tradition of “supervision by public opinion” and reinstates the Party’s dominance of all media.

In a separate interview with Financial Times, Bandurski looks at  how media restrictions have themselves encouraged the spread of fake news in China:

“These kinds of notices have been happening for at least 12 years,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, “and we can say that right now corruption in China’s media has never been worse. So none of these campaigns have ever been effective or had a real impact.”

Mr Bandurski said the prevalence of fake stories in Chinese media was a result of restrictions that prevented journalists in China from policing their own profession through unfettered reportage. Instead, he said, heavy censorship and regulation stifled professionalism, creating “a situation where you can’t have credible news reporting” and which supplied authorities with a convenient rationale for cracking down on inconvenient coverage. [Source]

The CAC’s statement came only a few days after Xu Lin replaced Lu Wei as the head of cybersecurity and internet policy in China, stirring speculation about Lu’s future. In a ChinaFile Conversation on trends in Chinese internet regulation, GreatFire.org cofounder Charlie Smith looks at possible implications of Lu’s departure and what the changes in CAC’s leadership may mean for internet freedom in China. The discussion also includes David Schlesinger, Jeremy Goldkorn, David Bandurski, David Wertime, and Rogier Creemers.

But the change may be more of an indication of how powerful has actually become as well as an indication of how powerful is going to be. Xi now puts his guy into place and can feel confident that Xu has his back. So if fails to quell “rumors and slander,” Xi does not have to second-guess whether or not Xu is doing everything within his power to stop these attacks.

Under Xu, we’ll likely see an extreme strengthening of information control: harsher penalties for domestic Internet companies that let information slip through the cracks; the blocking of more foreign websites; disrupting encrypted communications channels; and fewer meetings with foreign Internet executives. CAC could also have more input on wider Internet-related issues including implementing stricter controls on foreign technology and encouraging and assisting domestic Internet and technology companies in their efforts to go global.

But Xu Lin could go even further and take the steps that Lu Wei did not dare to take. Xu could cut off access to the global Internet. He could prevent Chinese from accessing information that is hosted on foreign CDNs. Xu sure as heck won’t make his mark through liberalizing the Chinese Internet. Since Lu Wei did a pretty good job of bringing the Chinese Internet under the control of the authorities, Xu will have to find new territory to conquer. He may well become the “architect of the Chinese intranet.” [Source]