It’s no secret that authoritarian governments are afraid of social media, as it enables dissidents to voice complaints and organize protests. Now the Chinese government is attacking social media by going after its most essential component: the ability to share with large groups of people.
According to a new rule handed down by China’s highest court and chief prosecutor, anyone who posts “online rumors” which are then viewed by over 5,000 Internet users, or re-posted over 500 times, can be charged with defamation and sentenced to up to three years in jail.
Court spokesman Sun Jungong was quoted by the People’s Daily, a government newspaper, as saying: “People have been hurt and reaction in society has been strong, demanding with one voice serious punishment by the law for criminal activities like using the internet to spread rumors and defame people.” Anticipating foreign criticism, Sun added: “No country would consider the slander of other people as ‘freedom of speech.’”
Tellingly, in addition to personal defamation, the new rule targets anyone spreading false information that triggers protests or ethnic or religious strife. These individuals may also be tried for provocation and incitement -- charges usually applied to people who try to start brawls or riots.
Chinese bloggers were quick to point out that the rules could be used to suppress, for example, speculative discussion about official corruption -- which, in the absence of definitive proof, could be considered “rumor-mongering.”
Back in 2010 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government thinktank, released a report, titled "Development of China's New Media," sounding the alarm over the subversive potential of online social media, which the authors warn is being used by Western governments (including the United States) to foment political unrest inside China. Among other things, the CASS report blamed outbreaks of violence in its western Xinjiang province on emigrant groups who used the Internet to issue calls for independence.
Of course China isn’t the only country targeting social media. In August Vietnam’s Communist regime introduced a new law forbidding social media users and bloggers from sharing news stories online, covering big sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as personal blogs; in fact, the government has decreed that social media may only be used “to provide and exchange personal information,” and has specifically prohibited sharing news about current events. The same law also prohibits internet service providers from enabling the dissemination of “information that is against Vietnam, undermining national security, social order and national unity... or information distorting, slandering and defaming the prestige of organizations, honor and dignity of individuals.”