China declares the fight against social media, digital news, to “fake news”
China has launched a new anti-fake news campaign in Beijing’s recent online content cleanup effort, which is putting additional pressure on the country’s social media platforms to weed out unauthorized information, which is likely to affect citizen journalists.
The campaign will target “illegal messaging” by news organizations and employees, internet platforms and public accounts, and unaccredited social organizations and individuals, a summary of a recent conference call by the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department posted on government websites.
China has one of the most extensive and advanced systems for controlling online information. The government has also issued strict licensing requirements for reporting and broadcasting. Details on how the new campaign will be launched have not been disclosed, but it is expected to have an impact on the country’s social media platforms.
“It will have an impact on platforms like WeChat and Douyin. For example, [public accounts] may publish less content, potentially resulting in loss of users, ”said Zhang Yi, CEO of iiMedia Research, referring to Tencent Holdings ubiquitous chat app and the Chinese version of TikTok owned by ByteDance. “But it will have a positive effect on the entire social media environment.”
The campaign is jointly carried out by 10 government departments: the Propaganda Department, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security, the State Administration of Taxes, the State Administration of Market Regulation, the state administration for radio, film and television; and the state-sponsored All-China Association of Journalists.
The campaign follows a new political push by the top state propaganda organs this week pushing for better “culture and art reviews” in China, including by restricting the role of algorithms in distributing content.
Citizen journalists have become more popular since so-called self-media accounts appeared on Chinese social media platforms. However, self-employed reporters cannot be accredited by the National Press and Publications Administration, which conducts examinations and issues licenses necessary for citizens to work in this profession. China had 228,327 accredited journalists on November 7, 2020, the latest data from the association.
Unaccredited reporters in China face legal consequences and possibly even criminal charges. Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison in Shanghai at the end of 2020 for reporting on the coronavirus pandemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Her official allegations were “causing disputes and provoking trouble,” a collective term often used to silence dissenting opinions.
China started licensing “intelligence services” to some online platforms in 2017, but only whitelisted websites, apps and platforms have this privilege. By March of this year, the Cyberspace Administration of China had issued 2,471 such permits, according to official figures.
While some citizen journalists have tried to establish themselves as a credible source of information on social media platforms like WeChat and the microblogging site Weibo, these media have also been a constant source of quasi-news content. This has forced the Chinese censors, and increasingly the police, to constantly pursue sources that are considered “fake news” or rumors.
On Tuesday, local police in Yangzhou, eastern Jiangsu Province, announced that they had arrested two citizens for spreading false coronavirus information in WeChat group chats as the city battles a recent Covid-19 outbreak.
The new campaign also targets extortion programs stemming from alleged news content and other misconduct in which content authors, according to a government summary, play up negative news about a company or person in order to solicit money. Fraud has become a problem with online news content in China recently.
One such case was that of Huang Sheng, who was arrested in Shenzhen last month on charges of “illegally taking deposits” after allegedly selling shady investment plans to his readers. The blogger had more than three million fans on Weibo and WeChat, where he regularly posted fabricated stories about the US economic collapse and financial wars between the country and China.
There have also been cases of WeChat public accounts benefiting from corporate blackmail. For example, an account called Xian Land in the capital of Shaanxi Province has been suspended on charges of blackmailing local developers, according to a May statement from the local cyberspace administration.
Previous efforts by the Chinese authorities to crack down on certain types of information have failed. This was the case with Dr. Li Wenliang the case, who has now been celebrated as a whistleblower and gave an early warning of the spread of the new coronavirus in Wuhan. He had sent messages to colleagues on December 30, 2019 about people suffering from Sars-like symptoms. He was then summoned by the local police, who ordered him not to make any more “false comments”.
At the time, China’s state media, including China Central Television, reported widely that eight people in Wuhan had been taught by local police for spreading rumors of pneumonia, which was later viewed as a mistake that led to the Authorities missed an early chance to stop the spread of Covid-19 in Wuhan. Li later died of the disease, and some online discussions in memory of him were eventually censored.
This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.