The Chinese government’s unprecedented crack down on online rumours is forcing some of those with verified accounts on the country’s hugely popular weibo microblogs to lower their profile by giving up their verified status.
The “Big Vs”, as they have become known in the Middle Kingdom, are those high profile Sina Weibo users who have been awarded the equivalent of Twitter’s verified account holders.
The difference in China is that these people – who can boast millions of followers – have become powerful online voices and opinion formers.
Unfortunately for them, that means they come under much closer scrutiny from a Communist Party that views anyone voicing opinions different from its own as a threat.
Sensing the potential for “social harm” and anti-Party sentiment that microblogs have presented ever since they broke into the mainstream in 2010/11, Beijing has ordered a major clamp down on so-called “online rumours” which could see jail time for those post popular tweets the authorities don’t like.
One Big V in particular, Xue Manzi, appears to have been made a scapegoat of sorts. The Chinese-American venture capitalist, who has over 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, was arrested recently on prostitution charges.
On Sunday he was paraded on national state-run CCTV, admitting to spreading irresponsible tweets in an interview which not only didn't cover the charges for which he was arrested, but also reads in parts like it was written by a propaganda official.
He claimed “freedom of speech cannot override the law", and that his irresponsibility was “a vent of negative mood, and was a neglect of the social mainstream” (tr The Guardian).
It’s no surprise, then, that other Big Vs are getting slightly nervous about their high profile status.
English language blog Offbeat China has links to several Big V weibo accounts where posters are either asking Sina to take away their verified status or already have.
One former Big V, 马钿, even claims that they are now able to speak “much more freely” online.
It must be noted, however, that Big V status is not a pre-requisite to gaining millions of weibo followers. There are plenty of non-Big V’s with large numbers of followers just as there are verified account holders with only a few thousand followers.
In fact, it is the latter group, OffBeat China said, which have been most active in unverifying their accounts, after presumably calculating that the risk of sticking their heads above the online parapet is not worth the reward. ®