Rumor has it

This is no April Fool’s – China’s microblogging platforms are being punished – 16 shut down, and the 2 microblog powerhouses – Sina and Tencent are legally implicated for spreading malicious rumors, or allowing users to use their platforms to spread rumors of a coup in Beijing, which is apparently untrue. Sina and Tencent weibo will have to turn off all commenting functions for 3 days. All past comments have been deleted, and users can only use the retweeting function to share information.

Why the separation of comment and retweet you may ask?

Retweet has the power to transfer information to one’s followers, but commenting has empowered users, usually likeminded ones, to discuss about hot trends and promote them, regulating trends into a user-rated media of what’s hot and what’s not – usually a very polarized topic is generated to propel it into the top charts. Weibo has sorted the top trends into the most popular retweets, and top commented posts as the more interesting and hottest topics daily, and this has allowed users to follow everyday, for the latest and most interesting social news. Furthermore, this is fueled partly by Weibo’s (Sina) excellent UI (IMO this beats Twitter and Twitter has been copying it ironically, such as introducing picture uploads, recommendation for trends to follow etc). The combination of these features allow users to both see top viral trends, and also participate in it. It is not just a social network – it is a true social media much sought after apart from the tightly regulated media as user-generated content are able to command a high viewership: many weibo users are reading without commenting, though there is a high proportion who participates in the discussion as well.

Nonetheless, social media’s apparent trump card in the digital era doesn’t seem as glamorous as it’s Western counterparts. Given China’s political sensitivity, and immense power (think Hunger game’s capitol) able to command much influence which web companies live or die – Fanfou the first Twitter clone is nowhere near Sina’s 300 million users today, it raises a question whether web companies are able to move against the pressures given by authorities. Unlike the west’s SOPA and PIPA blackout exerting pressure on the white house administration, the East has not gathered enough steam to push for policies. Xinjiang’s uproar was responded with a total internet blackout in the province, comments critical of the government have their retweet functions turned off. The central government has also proposed to Sina and Tencent for all users to authenticate their profiles for more accountable blogging. Of course this sounds crazy, but one can’t have its cake and eat it, a lesson tested and tried in the great East.

This of course poses a plausible problem for Sina’s intended worldwide expansion. How about the users registering from other places? While Sina has been constantly innovating – its secret following function (you can follow someone secretly without the person discovering you in his/her followers list taking stalking to a whole new level), a question mark has now appeared over its future –  the Beijing administration still has much rein over it, especially because it has not been actively curbing rumors in its pursuit of becoming China’s new social-driven media. Social media has the power to shape and divide opinions, but what is true? Is it because the crowd says so, even if it is baseless claims, or should it be true because is is based on a fact, or because it is politically correct? Should platforms intervene in responsible blogging? Sometimes it is hard to draw a line. the idea of responsibility differs from place to place. There can be many questions arising from the weibos in China, but one thing is certain – the royal flush belongs to the authority; web companies have to play second fiddle and there is no doubt about it. The great firewall of China, or so it is cheekily referred to, is a double edged sword protecting and incubating start-ups in the East from their stronger Western counterparts, but it also holds the power to crush or promote. Rumor has it – Mother knows best.


2 thoughts on “Rumor has it

  1. I guess social media is also subjected to the people’s government. I am not sure if China is effective in clamping down such social media related rumors or news generation. Not forgetting the Chinese do not really practice democracy, they are able to vote for their city/county leaders but they are all under the same party. So it’s a one party government. [Correct me if I am wrong]

    In my opinion, social media is harmless. It’s just a platform. But, the characteristics of an idea can be dangerous. Because when an idea leaves the mind and is shared, the idea is no longer controllable by the originator. Recall the movie Inception: “How can idea can spread like a virus and change the course of a human life”

    In every country, every political party strives to control the media. (Western countries are known for not doing that so well, where major media companies are independent).

    For Asian countries, it’s different. Singapore’s ruling party has a major influence on media, even though other political parties were granted the privilege to be covered in mainstream media.

    However, social media is something political parties cannot control well and they admitted the fact.

    Even Lee Kuan Yew himself had admitted a country(At least for Singapore) cannot control or deny the power of social media and its technologies. As we can see, Singapore embraced social media for their General Elections and has placed measures around using social media. Such as the cooling day off period which includes social media.

    What government can do is to enhance or devise legal innovation surrounding social media and not clamping hard on social media itself. One thing Singaporeans are familiar with is the notion of self-censorship and conformity.

    Rumors has it, but when 2 or more come together to “spice” it up, it seem confirmed. So I guess this is why China were hard on these social media platforms. This shows us how viral and powerful these “western” technologies are, when out of control and conflict with national security or sovereignty, governments do anything to stop social media or control it.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Seb!

    In my opinion, China’s unique situation explains why the government wants to control what do people say, and even how do they think. Except for Facebook, there is no other service can easily get a user population of 300 million in the west, and there is almost no western country with one party. China’s particular is also also shown in it’s netizens’ ability of judging Internet contents and our citizens’ interests about politics. The social network effect may be too powerful in spreading information(no matter good or bad) without the control of government.

    However, despite the Internet censorship, from a Chinese point of view, I believe the situation was improved compared to the situation years ago. Thanks to the power of online media and user generated contents, most of the news still get known to public as soon as they happen. I believe, with the increase of Internet literacy of common Chinese and “opener” policy of central government, the trend is towards a more transparent online media environment that watch over the traditional media. Although government control was never left Chinese netizens freely expressing their thoughts, more and more Chinese are given the rights to know what happens around them, despite the road was winding.

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