China launches campaign against ‘fake news’ as Beijing seeks to purify online information, targeting social media
- China’s censors go after fake news and unlicensed citizen journalists in latest move to cleanse cyberspace of information deemed fake or harmful
- The joint campaign from 10 regulatory agencies is expected to hit social media platforms like WeChat and Douyin, popular with content creators
China has launched a new campaign to crack down on “fake news” in Beijing’s latest effort to clean up online content, placing additional pressure on the country’s social media platforms to screen out unsanctioned information, likely impacting citizen journalists.
The campaign will target “illegal news activities” by news organisations and staff, internet platforms and public accounts, as well as unaccredited social organisations and individuals, according to a summary of a recent teleconference by the Central Propaganda Department of the Communist Party, which is published on government websites.
China has one of the most extensive and sophisticated systems in place to control online information. The government has also imposed strict licensing requirements for reporting and broadcasting. Details of how the new campaign will be rolled out have not been revealed, but it is expected to impact the country’s social media platforms.
The campaign is being jointly carried out by 10 government departments: the propaganda authority, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security, the State Administration of Taxation, the State Administration for Market Regulation, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, and the state-backed All-China Association of Journalists.
China started issuing “news service” licenses to some online platforms in 2017, but only white-listed websites, apps and platforms have that privilege. The Cyberspace Administration of China had issued 2,471 such permits by March of this year, according to official data.
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Even as some citizen journalists have sought to establish themselves as credible sources of information on social media platforms like WeChat and microblogging site Weibo, these outlets have also been a constant source of quasi-news content. This has forced Chinese censors, and increasingly the police, to constantly chase sources deemed to be “fake news” or rumours.
The new campaign will also target extortion schemes originating from purported news content and other misconduct in which content writers play up negative news about a company or person to demand money, according to a government summary. Scams have recently become a concern with online news content in China.
One such case was that of Huang Sheng, who was arrested in Shenzhen last month on the charge of “illegally taking deposits” after allegedly selling dodgy investment schemes to his readers. The blogger had amassed more than three million fans on Weibo and WeChat, where he regularly posted fabricated stories about economic collapse in the US and financial wars between the country and China.
There have also been cases of WeChat public accounts profiting from blackmailing businesses. One account named Xian Land in the capital city of Shaanxi province, for instance, was banned on allegations of blackmailing local property developers, according to a local cyberspace administration statement in May.
Past efforts from Chinese authorities to crack down on certain types of information have backfired. This was the case with Dr Li Wenliang, now celebrated as a whistle-blower who gave an early warning of the new coronavirus spreading in Wuhan. He had sent messages to colleagues about people suffering from Sars-like symptoms on December 30, 2019. He was subsequently summoned by local police, who ordered him to stop “making false comments”.