China has stepped up its online censorship efforts with a declaration that from now on all news stories will need to be "verified" for accuracy.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has published new rules that say websites should not publish unverified news stories from social media outlets. "It is forbidden to use hearsay to create news or use conjecture and imagination to distort the facts," said a CAC statement.
Although China's online censorship efforts are well known, such as the removal of political content critical of the ruling part and efforts to whitewash history, particularly the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, in this case, it is a heavy-handed effort to get rid of annoying clickbait-y made-up "news" articles like padded bras causing cancer and robots taking over.
Several big Chinese news sites have been warned and indeed "punished" this year for publishing untrue stories, according to the South China Morning Post.
The new rules state: "No website is allowed to report public news without specifying the sources, or report news that quotes untrue origins." It also prohibits "distortion of the facts" – a requirement that would likely put the Murdoch newspaper empire out of business.
This is just the latest effort in a broader campaign to clamp down on online rumors, something that the Chinese government finds particularly threatening.
The China Digital Times, which is based in California and carefully monitors the Chinese government's online censoring efforts, notes that internet users already face up to the three years in prison if any "rumors" that they post on social media are shared more than 500 times or viewed by more than 5,000 people (no wonder Donald Trump isn't a fan of the country).
Spreading inaccurate information in emergency situations is also a criminal offense under new laws introduced last year.
Change at the top
The decision that all news stories will henceforth need to be verified comes just days after the CAC was taken over by Xu Lin, a former deputy of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and now the head of cybersecurity and internet policy in China.
Lin's predecessor, Lu Wei, is likely to be seen as comparatively liberal in his policies compared to the new boss. Xu Lin is a trusted ally to Xi Jinping who hold enormous power in China thanks to three key offices: general secretary of the Communist Party, president of China, and chairman of China's Central Military Commission.
Jinping has made it clear recently that he viewed the internet – and the ability to control it – as a key policy goal of his reign. The Chinese government has already invested significant energy and resources into its own internal control systems and has started pushing its views on internet governance to a more global audience, most notably through its World Internet Conference.
Last week, the Chinese and Russian governments also signed a new cyberspace agreement between themselves that will see them push their more authoritarian view of how the internet should be governed.
So far their efforts have had limited success: last week, the United Nations made access to the internet and freedom of expression online part of the organization's recognized human rights. The resolution passed despite a coordinated effort by China and Russia to remove key sections. ®