As long as microblog users maintain a rational, objective and moderate position, and as long as microblog managers always maintain the principle of “good treatment, good use, good management”, microblogging can indeed play an active role in promoting social progress,
reads the first paragraph – and the conclusion – of a People’s Daily online (人民日报) article of Wednesday. It’s a signed article [Su Nan / 苏楠, news editor], and refers to an anti-rumor alliance (辟谣联盟), established at or by the microblogs [“microblog” mostly refers to Weibo, China’s most popular platform – weibo in itself means microblog in English] less than three months ago.
The article criticizes “instant-food” (自带干粮, more literally, stuff like dried noodles) netizens who were “upholding a flag of serving truth” (“高举“为真相服务”的旗帜”). People’s Daily seems to refer to a case where a photo, in June this year, had meant to prove that a prostitute or several prostitutes in Beijing were checked or arrested while naked. Efforts to clarify and to demonstrate that this was false information had been ridiculed (嘲讽) online.
This was a calamity the alliance hadn’t forseen, writes People’s Daily, and sees three questions arising:
1. Are microblogs media in a true sense, or street gossip? Can they be held accountable to media standards?
2. How to distinguish between hearsay, queries, and rumors? How to discern real queries from rumors?
3. Won’t unbalanced rumor prevention actually amplify the shortcomings within the ecology of microblogging? Won’t it influence the development of microblogging negatively?
Microblogs are no tea houses, warns People’s Daily – they carried media characteristics, serving 195 million users as a speaking platform, and serving as a news source for other media. The question about an ethical bottomline therefore needed to be addressed:
It’s not only media professionals who must act cautiously and conscientiously (审慎严谨) when using microblog information, but ordinary microbloggers, too, should assume responsibility for their words, honestly and in good faith (应该诚实守信，对自己的言论负责).
The article hopefully suggests that the sharp eyes of the masses (“群众的眼睛是雪亮的”, literally: eyes bright as snow) – such as the anti-rumor alliance – would help to promote rational and orderly expression and participation. However, rumor prevention itself was a term that chopped and changed (朝三暮四), and depending on how it was used, it could lead to even more rumors. The concept in itself required impartiality and objectivity.
Hudong Baike describes the anti-rumor alliance as an initiative for voluntary netizen self-discipline organization (网友自发的自律组织) by China University of Political Science and Law (中国政法大学) junior professor Wu Danhong (吴丹红), aka Wu Fatian (吴法天) and at least one media personality.
It is hard to see how a genuinely voluntary initiative of this kind should build in China. When an eery committee awarded a Confucius Prize to Taiwan’s former Taiwanese premier Lien Chan, it was emphasized that this was not an official prize (while the ministry of culture was nevertheless involved). Quite probably, much of the ridicule the anti-rumor alliance faced in June was owing to netizens’ suspicion that the alliance was about as “voluntary” or “spontaneous” as an unknown number of previous initiatives. Public faith in the integrity of such initiatives would require a genuine civil society, and even there, trust in such initiatives won’t go without saying. It is also hard to believe that People’s Daily’s fresh endorsement for the alliance, on Wednesday, wouldn’t have anything to do with censorship of the recent Wenzhou bullet train accident, which, according to Singapore’s Morning News, had led to a wide-spread sense of depression.
The People’s Daily article itself is aware that the cat frequently bites its own tail when it comes to censorship, or “rumor prevention”. That’s unfortunate because there are rumors in abundance, and many Chinese netizens are indeed grateful consumers and rebroadcasters of rumors.
But then, rumors thrive best in a secretive society, and anti-rumor alliances in China are bound to address the symptoms, rather than the causes.