Transparency powerful weapon against poisonous rumors online

By Zhou Sitian Source:Global Times Published: 2013-9-12 21:08:01

The Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate Monday released judicial interpretations on online rumors, regulating that those who fabricate rumors on the Internet to defame or slander others can be held accountable on charges of libel.

China is now making unprecedented efforts to crack down on online rumors through administrative means and judicial measures as well as through media publicity.

Rumors are ubiquitous in our life and everyone may have been exposed to a variety of gossip from time to time. In recent years, many online rumors about icons have been created and widely spread, like "Zhang Haidi has Japanese citizenship" and "Lei Feng led a luxurious life." 

However, why are rumors so terrible when they are posted online? Social media applications like Weibo and WeChat and bulletin boards have accelerated the spread of rumors, triggering greater harm to society than that caused by gossip in real life.

Rumormongers in the real world will either encounter moral criticism or bear legal sanctions, but story makers and spreaders on the Internet neither feel ashamed nor face punishment.

Instead, they will gain enormous profit from creating rumors. Therefore, online rumors have spread unscrupulously, jeopardizing the rights and interests of the nation, society and individuals in real life. How to properly cope with online defamation has become one of the top priorities facing not only the authorities but the whole of Chinese society.

Though many people disapprove of making up or disseminating gossip through the Internet, they don't support administrative or criminal penalties for rumormongers in fear that the implementation of punishment might create an online environment where the public will be afraid of speaking and thus sabotage the monitoring role of the Internet.

Nevertheless, the judicial interpretations issued by China's top court and procuratorate serve as a response to people's concerns because they offer a clear definition for crimes and sentencing.

Besides the lack of legal restriction, there are two more profound causes for slanderous rumors on the Internet.

First, netizens are not rational enough as they always believe what they are willing to believe. For instance, most online rumors that have been widely spread cater to certain psychological needs including resentment toward the powerful and the rich.

It is the shortage of rationality that leads them to blindly follow and even spread these rumors without proper judgment.

The decline of the credibility of some traditional media outlets accounts for another reason. The general public prefer to follow hearsay posted on Weibo or WeChat rather than believe news from "authoritative" sources.

Mere administrative rectification or legal sanctions are far from enough to address these two root causes. Long-term and systematic strategies, including education, the immediate release of government information to the public, improved transparency of governance and more participation in social affairs, are urgently needed.

Meanwhile, online rumors are, in the final analysis, a kind of speech, so more platforms are probably needed to offer a fuller spectrum of speech. This way the truth will eventually reveal themselves and rumors be stalled.

The author is a lawyer based in Shanghai.

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