On Rumors, Repression and Digital Disruption in China: Opening Pandora’s Inbox of Truthiness?

The Economist recently published a brilliant piece on China entitled: “The Power of Microblogs: Zombie Followers and Fake Re-Tweets.” BBC News followed with an equally excellent article: “Damaging Coup Rumors Ricochet Across China.” Combined, these articles reveal just how profound the digital disruption in China is likely to be now that Pandora’s Inbox has been opened.

Credit: The Economist

The Economist article opens with an insightful historical comparison:

“In the year 15AD, during the short-lived Xin dynasty, a rumor spread that a yellow dragon, a symbol of the emperor, had inauspiciously crashed into a temple in the mountains of central China and died. Ten thousand people rushed to the site. The emperor Wang Mang, aggrieved by such seditious gossip, ordered arrests and interrogations to quash the rumor, but never found the source. He was dethroned and killed eight years later, and Han-dynasty rule was restored.”

“The next ruler, Emperor Guangwu, took a different approach, studying rumors as a barometer of public sentiment, according to a recent book Rumors in the Han Dynasty by Lu Zongli, a historian. Guangwu’s government compiled a ‘Rumors Report’, cataloguing people’s complaints about local officials, and making assessments that were passed to the emperor. The early Eastern Han dynasty became known for officials who were less corrupt and more attuned to the people.”

In present day China, a popular pastime among 250+ million Chinese users of microblogging platforms is to “spread news and rumors, both true and false, that challenge the official script of government officials and state-propaganda organs.” In Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, James Scott distinguishes between public and hidden transcripts. The former describes the open, public discourse that take place between dominators and oppressed while hidden transcripts relate to the critique of power that “goes on offstage”, which the power elites cannot decode. Scott writes that when the oppressed classes publicize this “hidden transcript”, (the truthiness?) they become con-scious of its common status. Borrowing from Juergen Habermas (as interpreted by Clay Shirky), those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and a synchronized public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while ex-panding the rights of that public. The result in China? “It is hard to overestimate how much the arrival of [microblogging platforms] has changed the dynamic between rulers and ruled over the past two years” (The Economist).

Chinese authorities have responded to this threat in two predictable ways, one repeating the ill-fated actions of the Xin Dynasty and the other reflecting the more open spirit of Emperor Guangwu. In the latter case, authorities are turning to microblogs as a “listening post” for public opinion and also as a publishing platform. Indeed, “government agencies, party organs and individual officials have set up more than 50,000 weibo accounts [Chinese equivalent of Twitter]” (The Economist). In the former case, the regime has sought to “combat rumors harshly and to tighten controls over the microblogs and their users, censoring posts and closely monitoring troublemakers.” The UK Guardian reports that China is now “taking the toughest steps yet against major microblogs and detain-ing six people for spreading rumors of a coup amid Beijing’s most serious political crisis for years.”

Beijing’s attempt to regulate microblogging companies by requiring users to sign up with their real names is unlikely to be decisive, however. “No matter how it is enforced, user verification seems unlikely to deter the spread of rumors and information that has so concerned authorities” (The Economist). To be sure, companies are already selling fake verification services for a small fee. Besides, verifying accounts for millions of users is simply too time-consuming and hence costly. Even Twitter gave up their verified account service a while back. The task of countering rumors is even more of a Quixotic dream.

Property tycoon Zhang Xin, who has more than 3 million followers, wrote: “What is the best way to stop ‘rumors’? It is transparency and openness. The more speech is discouraged, the more rumors there will be” (UK Guardian).

This may in part explains why Chinese authorities have shifted their approach to one of engagement as evidenced by those 50,000 new weibo accounts. With this second reaction, however, Beijing is possibly passing the point of no return. “This degree of online engagement can be awkward for authorities used to a comfortable buffer from public opinion,” writes The Economist. This is an understatement; Pandora’s (In)box is now open and the “hidden transcript” is cloaked no longer. The critique of power is decoded and elites are “forced” to devise a public reply as a result of this shared awareness lest they lose legitimacy vis-a-vis the broader population. But the regime doesn’t even have a “customer service” mechanism in place to deal with distributed and potentially high-volume complaints. Censorship is easy compared to engagement.

Recall the “Rumors Report” compiled by Emperor Guangwu’s government to catalogue people’s complaints about local officials. How will these 50,000 new weibo users deal with such complaints now that the report can be crowdsourced, especially given that fact that China’s “Internet users have become increasingly bold in their willingness to discuss current affairs and even sensitive political news [...]” (UK Guardian).

As I have argued in my dissertation, repressive regimes can react to real (or perceived)  threats posed by “liberation technologies” by either cracking down and further centralizing control and/or by taking on the same strategies as digital activists, which at times requires less centralization. Either way, they’re taking the first step on a slippery slope. By acknowledging the problem of rumors so publicly, the regime is actually calling more attention to how disruptive these simple speculations can be—the classic Streisand effect.

“By falsely packaging lies and speculation as ‘truth’ and ‘existence’, online rumours undermine the morale of the public, and, if out of control, they will seriously disturb the public order and affect social stability,” said a commentary in the People’s Daily, the official Communist party newspaper. (UK Guardian).

Practically speaking, how will those 50,000 new weibo users coordinate their efforts to counter rumors and spread state propaganda? “We have a saying among us: you only need to move your lips to start a rumor, but you need to run until your legs are broken to refute one,” says an employee of a state media outlet (The Economist). How will these new weibo users synchronize collective action in near real-time to counter rumors when any delay is likely to be interpreted as evidence of further guilt? Will they know how to respond to myriads of questions being bombarded at them in real-time by hundreds of thousands of Chinese microbloggers? This may lead to high-pressure situations that are rife for mistakes and errors, particularly if these government officials are new to microblogging. Indeed, If just one of these state-microbloggers slips, that slip could go viral with a retweet tsunami. Any retreat by authorities from this distributed engagement strategy will only lead to more rumors.

The rumors of the coup d’état continue to ricochet across China, gaining remarkable traction far and wide. Chinese microblogs were also alight last week with talk of corruption and power struggles within the highest ranks of the party, which may have fueled the rumor of an overthrow. This is damaging to China’s Communist Party which “likes to portray itself as unified and in control,” particularly as it prepares for it’s once-in-a-decade leadership shuffle. “The problem for China’s Communist Party is that it has no effective way of refuting such talk. There are no official spokesmen who will go on the record, no sources briefing the media on the background. Did it happen? Nobody knows. So the rumors swirl” (BBC News). Even the official media, which is “often found waiting for political guidance, can be slow and unresponsive.”

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.”

Fascinating epilogues:

China’s censorship can never defeat the internet
China’s censors tested by microbloggers who keep one step ahead of state media

3 responses to “On Rumors, Repression and Digital Disruption in China: Opening Pandora’s Inbox of Truthiness?

  1. Pingback: The PRC vs Internet Rumors

  2. I absolutely doubt the way the posts and reposting behaviour are called as ‘tweets and retweeting’ in English. Except for the character limit, there is a huge difference between ‘tweet’ and ‘weibo’ or ‘retweet’ and ‘repost’. that’s why twitter is dwarfed by weibo for Chinese users and why Weibo might have a more promising future from a commercial perspective.

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