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Chinese crack down on Internet rumors

Days after Beijing's Communist Party chief visits its headquarters, China's leading microblogging service, Sina Weibo, warns its users to ignore what it terms 'false reports.'

August 27, 2011|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
  • Survivors are carried from the wreckage of a high-speed train collision in China's eastern city of Wenzhou on July 23 that killed 40 people. Chinese microblogs helped galvanize widespread anger over official handling of the disaster.
Survivors are carried from the wreckage of a high-speed train collision… (AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Beijing — Under pressure from the government to squelch the spread of Internet rumors, China's leading microblogging service, Sina Weibo, warned its users Friday to ignore what it termed "false reports."

The move comes four days after Beijing's Communist Party chief visited Sina Corp.'s headquarters and called for Internet companies to stop the spread of information that could threaten the government's control.

Sina, which operates more than 200 million Twitter-like microblogs, sent at least two alerts Friday. One was to dispel a rumor that the Red Cross Society of China was selling blood to hospitals for profit. The other sought to squelch a claim that an accused murderer had been freed because of his father's connections.

"For sending out false information, the user's account will be suspended and will not publish posts or be followed for one month," the second alert said.

Microblogs, known in China as weibos, have been a thorn in the side of authorities as their popularity has grown in recent years. Netizens have used it to expose government scandals and disseminate articles, photographs and videos that would stand little chance of making it into state-controlled media.

The platform has been something of a nerve center for educated and tech-savvy Chinese. In 140 characters or fewer, users can express their opinions relatively freely. Celebrities and famous business figures have attracted millions of followers.

But the government's patience has been severely tested in recent months.

In early July, microblogs were abuzz with word that former Chinese President Jiang Zemin had died. The rumors grew so strong that some foreign media outlets reported Jiang's death. China's state media refuted the story (though Jiang has still not been seen in public).

Later that month, microblogs helped galvanize widespread anger over official handling of a high-speed train collision in the eastern city of Wenzhou that killed 40 people.

For days, users sent messages that accused authorities of hastily burying the wreckage and castigated rescue teams for failing to reach survivors. Officials denied the rumors under a barrage of criticism.

Shortly after, state-owned China Central Television ran a report condemning rumors on microblogs as immoral — an official shot across the bow for Sina and other microblog services.

"Sina is probably using the messages to do two things," said Jeremy Goldkorn, an expert in Chinese digital media. "Make users think twice about posting scandalous or inflammatory information [and] to show the government that they are serious about controlling rumors."

A spokesman for Sina said Friday that its programmers had devised a system to thwart what they believed were the most egregious rumors.

"We're trying to do our best to be a stable and trustworthy platform," said the spokesman, who gave only his last name, Mao. He declined to comment on government pressure.

Experts said it was only a matter of time before the government would scrutinize Sina because of its growing influence. The company is now in the unenviable position of trying to expand usage of a highly popular tool while putting more limits on users' freedom of expression.

Chinese Internet companies largely conduct their own censorship for the government, employing hundreds, if not thousands, to trawl content to remove offending material.

But asking Sina to identify rumors and snuff them is an entirely new endeavor that could introduce new costs.

In February, Deutsche Bank cut its rating for the Nasdaq-listed Sina stock from "hold" to "sell," citing the risk of government regulation.

The site, which started primarily as a Web portal, launched its weibo service two years ago and has seen its shares nearly triple in value. In the last three months the company has signed up nearly 80 million new microblog accounts.

Some of them have mocked the latest censorship campaign.

"There are so many rumors in the world. Do you really need to explain them to me one by one?" wrote a microblogger named WeMarketing. "In fact, without those announcements, I wouldn't have even heard of those rumors."

The government's tight control on information and media is largely cited as the reason China has been so susceptible to hearsay. The problem is anything but new.

One famous Chinese proverb, nearly 3,000 years old, says: "Trying to stop people's mouths is like trying to stop a flood."

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