What happens when a country cracks down on fake news? Ask China

Year after year, China has arrested internet users for posting fake online rumors

The current debate over fake online news has one country feeling vindicated: China. For years, its controversial censorship system has been cracking down on so-called "online rumors," and last week a state-controlled newspaper essentially told the U.S., "I told you so."

"China’s crackdown on online rumors a few years ago was harshly condemned by the West,” wrote the Global Times. “Things changed really quickly, as the anxiety over internet management has been transferred to the U.S."

To be sure, the two are very different.

In the U.S., it’s private citizens and internet companies that are questioning the role of fake news while acknowledging freedom of speech. In China, the government itself is arresting people as part of its concerted effort to maintain control over all corners of the internet.

"Hearsay, fabricated news or guesswork that distorts the facts is prohibited," a Chinese internet regulator said in July.

Chinese authorities have deleted user accounts found spreading such content, and they’ve banned media organizations from citing unverified sources on social media.

Some users have faced harsher actions. For instance, in August 2015, some Chinese were arrested as part of a crackdown against 197 people for posting false information about stock market turmoil and an explosion in the city of Tianjin.

China saw problems with false information on social media early on, said Jason Ng, a researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, who has studied Chinese online censorship.

"To their credit, [China] recognized there is a potential vacuum where these sort of things can fester, and lead to real consequences," he said.

So Chinese censors have axed false reports about a celebrity's death or ways to cure cancer. On the other hand, they've also targeted the truth, banning discussion of subjects the government would rather citizens didn’t talk about, he said.

Censors have been found scrubbing social media posts that mention the death of the Chinese Communist Party or freedom of the press, according to Ng's research.

China claims this is necessary for societal order, and it’s also resulted in the blocking of major U.S. Internet companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Google. Domestic social media services -- which routinely censor posts critical of the government -- have taken their place.

This approach stands at odds with that of the U.S. government, which has supported free speech and been critical of tech businesses that support China’s censorship apparatus. So it’s with some amusement that internet users in China have noted the U.S. debate on fake news.

"The West arrogantly thought they could use their social media networks as a tool to overthrow other countries, but in the end they became a victim of it," wrote one user on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like site.

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Sina Weibo is a Twitter-like site in China that regularly censors posts, including fake news.

Social media is such an active place for exchange of information in China in part because users don’t trust mainstream media, most of which is state-run and tightly controlled. To find unfiltered news, internet users often turn to Chinese social media networks, where they can post and read content that sometimes gets past the censors.

“Social media in China has been the channel through which internet users can exchange information that wouldn’t have been allowed in state-run media,” said Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.

And despite the censorship, more Chinese internet users are relying on social media for unfiltered news, even if the source is questionable, Ng said. "The potential for fake news can happen because Chinese citizens have such distrust in the official media," he said.

Perhaps the same can be said of America's problem with fake news. Distrust of mainstream media led a portion of the U.S. population to seek out alternative news online, and that helped fake news flourish.

“I guess one man’s rumor is another man’s scoop,” said Duncan Clark, chairman of technology consultancy BDA China.

For the Chinese government, cracking down on online rumors is about nipping unrest in the bud before it becomes a political movement, he said. But the rise of social media is creating a new media environment in both countries.

"As I think Barack Obama just said to the New Yorker, 'everything is true and nothing is true'," Clark said.

It's a concern that internet users in China are also very aware of.

"Most Chinese users are actually against fake news," Ng said. "Because they know that in this environment, it has the potential to flourish."

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