By Oiwan Lam
China’s Cyberspace Administration, the top level Internet regulator, has banned news outlets from citing social media messages as sources. The new policy is part of an ongoing crackdown on “fake” news and rumors.
All media outlets received an official notice of the ban in early July, according to press release posted on the Administration’s website late on the evening of July 3. The press release, which quoted several cases of “fabricated news” circulated online, said authorities had penalized one dozen online news outlets including Sina, Caijing, Tencent, and NetEase and forced them to delete a number of columnists’ accounts due to their use of social media sources.
The notice stressed:
All websites must adhere to the correct guidelines on channeling public opinion and adopt measures that ensure the news reports are true, comprehensive, objective and fair. The race to break news stories by using unverified facts distributed via social media platforms is forbidden. […] All websites should take responsibility for managing mobile news services as well as Weibo, WeChat and others to make sure that editorial flows are being monitored. Websites are strictly prohibited from quoting from unnamed or fake news sources and fabricating news based on hearsay, guesswork or imagination.
Two days later, commentary published by state news agency Xinhua advocated even more severe punishment for media outlets that failed to implement the new policy. The post has been widely distributed on social media, with many messages echoing the negative impact of fabricated news on the society.
The Cyberspace Administration mentioned various stories that included “false” news, with headlines such as:
- Two killed and ten injured in bus arson in Changsha
- After Wei Zexi incident, Letters and Complaints Bureau sets up a green channel for about 100 patients suffering from the same illness
- Shanghai girl runs away from Jiangxi village during Lunar New Year
- Daughter-in-law from city flips the dinner table in hometown village during Lunar New Year
The first two news items were fabricated from pre-existing news stories. For example, the bus arson was rewritten from a news report back in 2010.
The latter two cases were short stories published online to stimulate discussion about gender relations in China, but were then mischaracterized by media outlets as real incidents.
There are certainly cases in which journalists have failed to verify facts taken from social media, but what the Cyberspace Administration intentionally ignores is the positive impact of sourcing news from social media.
Take the Wei Zexi incident, which was sourced from social media. Wei was a 21-year-old college student who died in April of synovial sarcoma, but not before his family spent thousands on a phony treatment that exacerbated his condition. They had based the decision on what they thought was a search result on Baidu, the dominant Internet search engine in China, but was actually an advertisement. This particular story, which included video testimony from Wei taken shortly before he died, led to widespread discussion about the problem of search engine advertisement practices and the disorder of the Chinese health system. Eventually, the Cyberspace Administration stepped in to tighten the regulations on advertising on search engines.
Chang Ping, a prominent Chinese journalist who now resides in Germany, pointed out that though some “fabricated” stories are indeed spread by online media outlets, most of them are just sensational local news that have little to no consequences when compared to government-fabricated news that affect the country’s development:
From a historical perspective, media outlets that are close to government have a higher tendency to fabricate news. The track record of state-controlled media outlets is even worse. For example, the China Daily, Xinhua News and Chinese Central Television have been producing lies that claim that 10,000 catty of wheat were grown on one mu [0.667 hectare] [during Mao Zedong’s socioeconomic program called the Great Leap Forward], the June 4 massacre never happened in Tiananmen [in 1989], that promote the glory of the People’s Collective Communes, the glory of the China Dream, the dictatorship of the proletariat [Maoist political theory during the Cultural Revolution] and rule by law [under current Chinese President Xi Jinping].
Since April 2015, the Cyberspace Administration has been introducing a series of policies to tighten control of online portals and news sites. Blogger Lanjinger compiled a timeline:
• April 28, 2015: The Cyberspace Administration announced “10 rules for interviews.” The rules demanded that website administration attend “an interview” with authorities after the sites fail to manage illegal information. There are nine scenarios listed in the rules and for those sites which fail to improve their management after the interview, their business license can be cancelled.
• October 24, 2015: The Cyberspace Administration held a roundtable with representatives of the industry to discuss “the implementation of rule of law on cyberspace.”
• May 6, 2016: The Cyberspace Administration granted six state-controlled websites including Renminwang and Xinhua Net permission to operate provincial news channels. [The local news licensing system has made illegal other provincial news channels operated by all other portal websites. The six licensed sites are Renminwang, Xinhua, China Radio International, China Daily, Guangmingwang and China National Radio.]
• June 21, 2016: The Cyberspace Administration held a national video conference on the clean-up of news comment threads to draw up a plan in dealing with news comments on social media. The authorities said the news comments on social media have disrupted the order of online information distribution, the online opinion ecology. People hate such phenomena and more management effort is needed.
• June 28, 2016: The Cyberspace Administration announced the app management regulation to tighten management of Internet applications, to enhance the healthy development of the sector and to protect the rights of citizens, legal entities and other organizations. [The regulation demanded real-name registration of app users. There are more than 4 million applications on app stores in China.]
The current crackdown on online news and social media news comments is consistent with the broader ideological struggle under President Xi Jinping, who wants to restore the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership in both new and conventional media.