China has just raised the stakes in its battle against microbloggers, with its Supreme Court upholding a new law that threatens jail time for anyone guilty of spreading “online rumors”.
According to China’s Supreme Court, as of now any “inaccurate or misleading” post that’s “clicked and viewed more than 5,000 times, or reposted more than 500 times,” will be considered as “serious defamation,” a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment.
The move is seen as the latest gambit in a broader effort by China’s new leaders to crackdown on online dissent. China already enforces some of the toughest internet censorship in the world, with many popular western sites like Facebook, Twitter, CNN and BBC news regularly blocked, but its own ‘home grown’ versions, such as Sina Webo, have become popular platforms for netizens to air their grievances online.
Now, doing so is only going to become more difficult. Unfortunately, “serious defamation” is only one crime that those posting rumors could be found guilty of. According to Reuters, the court further stated that such rumors could be construed as “gravely harming social order and national interests” if they meet one of a number of conditions, such as “triggering chaos”, “triggering a mass incident”, “triggering ethnic or religious conflict”, “slandering numerous people and creating a negative social influence” or “harming the national image,” among others. Should anyone post content that results in one of the above ‘situations’, they might very well be facing a sentence of longer than just three years.
Of course this begs the question, what exactly does an “online rumor” constitute? It’s a pretty vague term that’s open to interpretation, but according to Chinese state media, one recent example includes rumors spread online that people were selling soup made from dead babies in the province of Guangdong. The People’s Daily, China’s most popular mouthpiece, recently posted ten similar examples of internet rumor-mongering that displeased the authorities – some of which were seriously damaging, such as the one about bad tangerines that apparently caused the country’s agriculture industry some $240 million in damages.
Not surprisingly, the new regulations have come in for some sharp criticism on China’s web, and not just because they could be used to punish critics of the government. There’s also a worry that people could exploit the ease of buying retweets and reposts on sites like Sina Weibo and WeChat to punish their enemies if they post something untrue.
The law further seems to be somewhat biased too. There are numerous incidents wherein newspapers and magazine publish erroneous articles that get way more than 5,000 views, but are the authors or owners of these sites likely to be punished? China’s state media is famous for publishing misleading and biased takes on the news, yet the authors of these stories are highly unlikely to be punished for doing so.
China’s official line is that the law will be used to deter the spread of misinformation and smear campaigns, but in reality it’s more likely that the threat of jail will be used to cow social media users into keeping their mouths shut, or by certain individuals to attack their enemies. If China’s leaders and official media were subject to the same standards as individual citizens are going to be, this law would be more acceptable – but the sad fact is that they are not, and its only real purpose will be to further deny Chinese citizens their right to speak their mind.