The PRC vs Internet Rumors

This is a good read on the Chinese government’s efforts to crack down on online rumors, particularly those occurring on microblogging platforms. Patrick Meier’s entire piece is worth reading, but the closing captures the challenge the Chinese Communist Party faces in an age of instant communication.

So if Chinese authorities and state media aren’t even equipped (beyond plain old censorship) to respond to national rumors of vis-a-vis an event as important as a coup (can it possibly get more important than that?), then how in the world will they deal with the undercurrent of rumors that continue to fill Chinese microblogs now that these can have 50,000 new targets online? Moreover, “many in China are now so cynical about the level of censorship that they will not believe what comes from the party’s mouthpieces even if it is true. Instead they will give credence to half-truths or fabrications on the web,” which is “corrosive for the party’s authority” (BBC News). This is a serious problem for China’s Communist elite who are obsessed with the task of projecting an image of total unity and stability.

In contrast, speculators on Chinese microblogging platforms don’t need a highly coordinated strategy to spread conspiracies. They are not handicapped by the centralization and collective action problem that Chinese authorities face; after all, it is clearly far easier to spread a rumor than to debunk one. As noted by The Economist, those spreading rumors have “at their disposal armies of zombie followers and fake re-tweets as well as marketing companies, which help draw attention to rumors until they are spread by a respected user with many real followers, such as a celebrity.” But there’s more at stake here than mere rumors. In fact, as noted by The Economist, the core of the problem has less to do with hunting down rumors of yellow dragons than with “the truth that they reflect: a nervous public. In the age of weibo, it may be that the wisps of truth prove more problematic for authorities than the clouds of falsehood.”

To add in one more element, the Chinese Communist Party is fundamentally concerned with its hold on power and maintaining an image of unshakable stability. Every rumor about corruption, about mis-government, about special treatment by elites for elites and the children of elites – let alone rumors of a coup! – undermines the stability that the CCP seeks to maintain. At its most fundamental level, speech is eroding the power base of the Chinese Communist Party. Their hold on power is vastly more tenuous than they want the Chinese public and the global community to believe. As Meier points out, failed attempts by the Chinese Communist Part to effectively stop rumors will only raise the stakes for their censorship, with each failure to instantly control what rumors are circulating further undermining their hold to power. There will be a tipping point, it’s just not clear when it will arrive.

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