Weibo crackdown highlights rumors' danger

By Guan Yan Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-27 23:18:02

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Beijing police authorities launched a crackdown against Erma, an Internet PR company last week and detained several of its employees, whom they claimed were responsible for some notorious rumors spread online in recent years.

According to the authorities' claims, Erma was behind cases such as fabricating information about different compensation standards for domestic and foreign victims in the 2011 Wenzhou bullet train accident, and a pin-for-villa trade scheme that was later found to be a promotional hoax.

Meanwhile, quite a number of public figures have been preyed upon by malicious libels allegedly promulgated by the company.

Not unexpectedly, the crackdown stirred a round of outcry over speech freedom in China.

Ever since the beginning of Weibo, the new public opinion platform has been mixed with deep-buried truths and malicious rumors. It is where a slew of corrupted officials were exposed, where the country's largest charity organization was besieged, and where almost all high-profile legal cases have received intense public scrutiny.

As China still lacks public access to politics, Weibo is hailed as a town-hall style channel, via which people can participate in public affairs, having their views expressed and heard by the authorities.

Public will is weighing into government decisions more than ever thanks to the presence of Weibo. The reaction a policy may cause among netizens is increasingly a serious concern for officials.

It is the cover of public will that gives Weibo an extra sense of legitimacy, even though it is not short of unverified information. The weak credibility of the government and official media help lend authority to Weibo as it is often claimed that "rumor is a way to force out truth."

Public anger is well used by cyber promoters to fabricate Internet event. The stories concocted often contain elements of corruption, flaunting wealth and power abuse, with juicy details involving sex, enough to make them widely received. Yang Xiuyu, founder of Erma, claims bluntly in his blog that the key for making successful Internet events is to stir netizens' anger.

Weibo has been a place without effective regulation. Each time, the authorities' attempt to impose order over it through law enforcement is regarded as intending to suppress public opinion. The claim seems to be sensible as many of the true or untrue posts involve public power.

Public will has been deified in cyberspace. But too much appeasement of public opinion has seen cyber violence grow and rumor run wild.

Weibo is seen as a place to foster China's civil society, but the signs reflected are not all optimistic.

Weibo empowers the individuals, but public participation of politics, which should be diverse, is simplified as venting online. The complicated process of policymaking is becoming a clash between authorities and public will.

The worrying trend has been noticed. In a forum attended by influential Weibo figures recently, a seven-point bottom line was reached, including bottom line of law and regulation, institution of socialism, national interest, citizen's legal rights, public order, moral baseline and information authenticity. The highlighting of a bottom line shows the urgency of restoring order in cyberspace.

Many are wondering what will happen next after the crackdown on Erma and the detention of several alleged rumormongers.

A proper way of collecting and dealing with public opinion is badly needed, otherwise, rumors might find other ways to continue forming and growing.

The author is a commentator with the Global Times.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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