CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS A man uses a mobile phone at a shipyard on the Yangtze River in Fengjie, China, August 2012.

China's Rumor Mill

Why Beijing Is Cracking Down on “Unverified” Information Online

Find the common thread in the following statements: 1) The death of Alibaba founder Jack Ma's son proves that wealth can't buy happiness; 2) Bras with pads cause breast cancer because the padding hinders "breast breathing"; 3) NASA confirms that the earth will enter darkness for six days on December 16; 4) A drop of water falling from a high enough altitude can kill a person; 5) After former Communist Party Head Zhou Yongkang is ousted, there will be less corruption and greater liberalization.

Give up? All five come from posts that Chinese authorities deleted from the blogging platform of WeChat, a mobile chat application and China's hottest social network. And all five deal in what Chinese censors consider "rumors," a modern-day dirty word that officials in Beijing use as a catch-all term to describe speculation, unverified commentary, and false information posted online.

Throughout modern Chinese history, rumor has been a flexible category that has included not only speculation and falsehoods but also unsanctioned opinions about contemporary events. During the Mao era, the historian Steve Smith has written, rumors were considered to be "any information or opinion at variance with the official construction of reality"—even when that information or opinion was mostly factual. That sensibility has since been codified through regulations such as the State Internet Information Office's so-called WeChat Articles, which aim to prohibit non-government-approved Web users from posting political news items.

A display promoting the Chinese social network WeChat in Hong Kong, March 2015.

A counter promoting a WeChat service for the blind on display at a news conference in Hong Kong, March 2015. 

Rules like these allow Chinese officials to take a surprisingly expansive view of what constitutes malicious gossip. State media even compares rumors to drugs, illnesses, and weapons—used by China's critics, of course, in their efforts to destabilize the country. It was on such grounds that Chinese authorities managed to justify the detention of scores of individuals for promoting "disorder" during China's recent stock market fall—among them, one journalist who merely opined on possible government responses to the market volatility.

But there is more to China's crackdown on rumormongering than a simple desire to curtail explicit or implicit criticism of the state. The crackdown is also a strategic attempt to reclaim the commanding heights of mass communication by denigrating unofficial news and commentary outlets, among them the growing number of Chinese bloggers who have millions of followers—making them as influential as some of China’s state newspapers or TV networks. And it is a strike against the potential use of rumors as a tool for political organizing.

NO IDLE GOSSIP

The most recent campaign against rumors has roots in a number of pronouncements in state media decrying their growth from 2011, but it has gained even greater momentum since 2013. In September of that year, the Supreme People’s Court issued guidelines criminalizing the sharing of defamatory or destabilizing misinformation that was forwarded over 500 times or viewed more than 5,000 times—regulations that could, effectively, outlaw viral dissent. The ruling was presaged by the detention of hundreds of social media users.

That same month, Chinese authorities cited the new regulation as grounds for the arrest of a 16-year-old student, Yang Hui, who had questioned the findings of a police investigation of a suicide case in China's northwestern Gansu province. Yang was released about a week later, after police declined to try him and the chief of the local public security bureau was suspended, in all likelihood for mishandling the affair—an incident that, for many Chinese Internet users, reinforced the idea that rumors can carry more truth than official reality. In Yang's and in other cases, Beijing's zealous crackdown on alleged rumors has damaged public trust in the state nearly as much as the rumors themselves.

Rumors are a potent form of protest when official stories lack credibility.
STRINGER / REUTERS A worker uses a laptop inside his dormitory near a residential construction site in Hefei, August 2014.

The Chinese Communist Party's pursuit of information control in spite of the downsides is explained in part by China's historic ideologies—from Leninism to the country's Confucianist and Taoist roots. Informed by these traditions, the Chinese Communist Party has long worked to maintain a shared set of beliefs among officials and citizens. In this sense, Beijing’s crackdown on perceived sources of insubordination and disorder is nothing new. In Mao-era China, for example, rumors often served as a form of improvised news, an expression of hopes and fears, and a way of coping with unstable situations—as well as a form of political resistance disallowed by the state. In today's China, where information flows are limited and dissent is restricted, rumors offer a rare way for individuals to publicly express their reservations and criticisms, and so it makes sense that the state has attacked them as a potential source of instability.

Rumors can also serve as an indirect method of organizing, as a collective story is consumed and retold. And there is safety in numbers as citizens exchange their concerns, sometimes in coded or allegorical form. The purpose of spreading rumors, as the Stanford researcher Jun Liu writes, is thus "not just to reveal the truth … or to embarrass those individuals or institutions … in power, but to mobilize citizens." On the Chinese Internet, rumors serve as a collective response to injustice and a weapon of the weak. 

There is more to China's crackdown on rumormongering than a simple desire to curtail criticism of the state.

The recent explosion in the publication and sharing of unverified information online can thus be described as an attempt by Chinese Internet users both to express their minds and to create a collective counterweight against unreliable official statements. Indeed, rumors are a particularly potent form of protest when official stories lack credibility. As Cheng Yizhong, the founder of the newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, has said, "Rumors are the penalty for lies."

THE DIGITAL PICKET FENCE

To a certain extent, Beijing does tolerate online rumors and critical commentary as a type of public safety valve. But the boundaries of what is permitted are always in flux, and they appear to have narrowed recently, especially when it comes to issues such as corruption. Adjusting the level of censorship is a delicate act. On the one hand, a limited amount of open, critical reporting can help the government carry out duties such as rooting out corrupt local officials. On the other, in relatively decentralized media such as the Internet, performing partial censorship is difficult, and so a great deal of information that might harm the state can slip through.

To compensate for this, the political scientist Peter Lorentzen has posited, authoritarian governments such as China's tighten their grip on traditional media outlets to ensure a countervailing balance to critical online commentary. This attempt to compensate for online criticism can encourage rumormongering—with effects that, counterintuitively, benefit the state. If citizens become aware of increasing restrictions on traditional media outlets, they may choose to rely even more on independent sources such as online news sites, with little regard for whether these sources are trustworthy. By limiting independent media through censorship and encouraging citizens to question the trustworthiness of all unapproved media sources, Beijing’s anti-rumor campaign thus aims to tilt the balance over information control back in the government’s favor.

A man checks an iPad on the Bund in Shanghai, September 2013.

A man checks an iPad in Shanghai, September 2013. 

Citizens have certainly heard the government's anti-rumor message, which has been broadcast widely by reports and statements in traditional media. And Beijing's rhetoric—which frequently relies on the language of disease and addiction to portray gossip as destabilizing, immoral, and potentially criminal—has generated substantial public support. Some Internet users have even formed so-called "anti-rumor leagues" to enlist in the fight against false rumors. Whatever the outcome of the anti-rumor campaign, it seems certain that online censorship in China varies with the country's political circumstances—and that China's slowing economy might make now a particularly sensitive time for online speech.

Some Internet users have even formed so-called "anti-rumor leagues" to enlist in the fight against false rumors.

The power of online rumors extends far beyond their contents. Even when they are not specifically aimed at rallying masses to a cause, the transmission of even the most dubious of claims is still indicative of another kind of collective movement: an attack on the pervasive censorship system, which has encouraged online users to develop an extreme form of skepticism wherein, as Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University's School of Journalism and Communication, suggests, "news looks like rumor and rumor looks like news." In such an environment, the spread of rumors on the Chinese Internet is not surprising—and considering their implicit criticism of the credibility of authorities, neither is the effort by government officials and social media companies to restrict them.

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