One of the many miraculous attributes credited to social media by cyber-utopians is its ability to confer “transparency” upon the institutions that adopt it: by engaging with ordinary folks through the two-way channel of social media, the government, business, schools, non-profits and so on supposedly make themselves accountable to citizens who can now ask questions and demand information.
I say “supposedly” because the reality is a bit more complicated. Sure, institutions that adopt social media in good faith may make their inner workings more comprehensible and responsive to the people they are supposed to serve. But social media can also serve as a fig leaf for institutions with no intention of sharing their secrets or cleaning up their act -- a kind of sham transparency, offering the appearance of accountability but none of its substance.
See Exhibit A: Zhou Qiang, the president and chief judge of China’s Supreme People’s Court, has issued a directive to that country’s judiciary to using social media, including Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, to make court operations more “transparent.” No really: according to China Daily, “the State Council said in a statement that all government departments should publish authorized information on new media and interact with the public online.”
This directive is clearly intended to create the appearance that China enjoys the rule of law, or at the very least is making progress towards it. And if you believe that, I have a Great Wall you may be interested in buying.
Now, it’s certainly possible that Chinese courts will share information about more mundane cases, the ordinary criminal prosecutions which are handled in China much as they are elsewhere: China has murder, rape, and property crime like any other country, and unsurprisingly some of these cases get the media spotlight and capture the public’s interest. And by showing courts dealing with these cases more or less competently, Chinese officials doubtless hope to bolster confidence in the judiciary overall.
But what really determines whether a country enjoys the rule of law is not how much information courts share about ongoing prosecutions or the sentences they hand down: Stalin’s show trials were highly publicized, and for good reason. Rather, it’s what prosecutions are opened in the first place -- and it’s no secret that most cases of corruption in China never see the light of day, as top officials are basically immune from legal oversight (as long as they play by the rules and don’t get too greedy).
On this note it’s no coincidence that China is also cracking down on social media “rumors” -- one of the few channels through which ordinary citizens might be able to call out corrupt officials. 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.