China's State Media Hits Out at Big Tweeters

A Chinese netizen uses a microblogging service in a rural village in Guizhou province, Dec. 15, 2012.

China's state-run media has published a stinging attack on some of the biggest names on social media sites, accusing them of rumor-mongering and calling for tighter curbs on what can be tweeted.

In opinion pieces in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and the linked nationalistic tabloid Global Times, commentators targeted verified accounts with millions of followers, known as "Big V" accounts.

"Big V accounts have become relay stations for online rumors," said the Global Times article. "It is imperative that we impose some legal curbs on these Big V accounts."

"Some Big V accounts deliberately seek out rumors in the name of 'finding proof,' harming the dignity of the law and infringing the legal rights and interests of the general public," it said, without specifying which rights and interests.

"Regulating their behavior is part of the meaning of China's process of legal construction," the paper said.

Feeling 'threatened'

According to a Chinese online writer, who gave only his surname Liu, the articles were the latest in a string of official attacks on Big V accounts on popular microblogging services such as Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo.

"The influence of the Big V social media accounts is huge," Liu said.

"They are more influential than the People's Daily."

"Of course, the government feels very threatened by this."

He said the authorities were preparing the ground for a further crackdown, targeting celebrity bloggers with huge followings.

"I think the Big V accounts will be the next to be sacrificed," said Liu, who personally knows a number of Big V microbloggers.

China's high-profile tweeters are unsettling the authorities because they often send out posts that aren't in line with official rhetoric on a given issue, netizens say.

The Party's powerful but secretive central propaganda department, in particular, is worried about unapproved opinions and reports making their way onto China's tightly-censored Internet, via microbloggers with huge personal followings.

According to the Global Times article, many Big V bloggers "know perfectly well" the sort of impact that certain tweets will have on the Chinese Internet, and deliberately retweet them just the same.

Fear of rumors

Meanwhile, U.S.-based writer Zhang Tianliang said that online rumors were a fact of life in any country, but that they carry a particular weight in China, where mainstream media are tightly controlled by state propaganda directives.

"If we look at why the Big V accounts have more followers than the People's Daily, it's because the public lacks trust [in state media]," Zhang said.

"Why is public trust [in state media] so low, to the point where people are more willing to believe rumors than the Communist Party?"

"If they can't answer these questions, then it won't do any good to go after rumors [online]," he said.

Zhang said it was as hard to control Chinese social media in real-time as it was a chance conversation on a city street.

"You can't control other people chatting, and neither can you control all sorts of reports that get onto the Internet," he said.

Boston tweets

Last month's Boston marathon bombings prompted a huge response in China, including calls for greater press freedom, after Big V microblogger and China Vanke property magnate Wang Shi tweeted live from the scene of the blasts.

Wang, who was there to support a team sponsored by his company, uploaded video and photos of the immediate aftermath of the bombing to his account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo, sparking thousands of retweets and comments.

"Two loud bangs go off near the finish line," Wang tweeted to his verified account, adding video of fire engines, distraught people, clouds of smoke and police. "The race is stopped and everyone is leaving."

While China responded promptly to news of the attacks, calling for increased anti-terrorism cooperation with the U.S., Wang's tweets prompted comments calling for greater freedom of information in China, as well as admiration for the U.S. emergency teams' response.

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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