It's time for gov't to hold tech companies to account over rumors and fake news online
WHILE waiting for bus early last Wednesday, I saw an elderly woman saying something to a small boy that might have been her grandson.
Between snatches of conversation I overheard, uttered with dramatic emphasis: “… broken seven of his ribs!”
The woman was playing up some macabre details with much vehemence to the boy, in an obvious attempt at imparting a moral. But if that was the intention, probably she failed: The small boy’s look of cheerful insouciance in no way lived up to the gravity the incident.
I realized what she was talking about two hours later, when a colleague briefed me about the story, in the knowledge that the police had just confirmed it to be a rumor.
The rumor was about an eight-year-old boy sitting alone in a bus seat reserved for the needy. After demanding the seat, and being refused, a 50-year-old man attacked the boy so brutally that he suffered extensive fractures, with seven ribs broken, and risked losing one of his eyes. When the distraught mother confronted the man at the police station, she took the law into her own hands by gouging out one of the man’s eyes.
The rumor was debunked following extensive police checks with local police, bus companies and hospitals.
At 2:00pm on Wednesday, the police announced the detention of a 33-year-old man surnamed Jiang, who was responsible for making up the story, apparently to draw attention to himself.
At 8:30pm, a 37-year-old woman surnamed Mei was seized for spreading the rumor. She faced detention for five days and a fine of 500 yuan (US$77).
Jiang first published the rumor in a WeChat group in January 8, but the rumor did not go very far until it was rediscovered by Mei, who posted it in a public forum on January 16.
Then it went viral.
The speed with which the rumor was squashed won the police accolades.
When Xinhua reported the incident on January 17, it concluded its report by saying: “The masses and netizens condemned the two culprits, while approving local police for their timely handling of the case.”
In a People’s Daily commentary on January 18, “Pooling the wisdom of the people in exposing rumors”, the paper said that last year Shanghai police had successfully investigated 390 online rumors.
The rumor-mongering had been variously motivated, with some bearing a grudge, some having his/her own axe to grind by stirring up trouble, and others out of sheer boredom.
Cracking down on 390 rumors a year is undoubtedly a feat. But given the seeming anonymity of cyberspace, the ease with which a rumor can be created and spread, and the traffic it can fuel, it is probably unreasonable to expect police to track down all fabricators.
There is an urgency to think up a more fundamental solution to this persistent problem in the cyber age. The People’s Daily commentary, by observing that “the liars should be dealt with to the letter of the law, while online platforms should not afford rumor-mongers space,” was significant in pointing out that online platforms should be held accountable as the providers of technology which enables rumors to become exponentially amplified.
It’s pretty weak excuse for some online operators to plead innocence: “Ours is just a technology company.” Imagine a newspaper publisher saying: “Ours is just a few tons of newsprint.”
The Internet has created enormous potential for the deliberate spread of fabricated news, to fuel traffic and to mislead.
If online portals are allowed to become the major source of news for people today, it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to be subject to the kind of rigor and standards demanded of traditional media.
Absent effective regulation and supervision, they can easily degenerate into corrosive and disruptive forces by hosting disinformation, rumors, or fake news. In more subtle but probably more detrimental ways, they might morph into tools of persecution and coercion, as shown in the proliferation of instances of harassment, or promotion of hatred or even violence against particular persons or groups.
Stronger measures needed
There is deliberately circulated historically nihilistic content, in the guise of independent research findings, whose pernicious influence on the society in general, and young people in particular, should not be underestimated.
Recently, WeChat announced a number of restrictive measures to counter distorting information regarding the history of the Communist Party of China and the history of China. These measures include deletion of the articles in question, or blocking of public accounts guilty of such offence. That’s good, but far from enough.
Given social media companies’ thirst for profits, their enforcement of their own standards can only be weak, selective, and perfunctory.
In fairness only the government can come up with sufficiently strong measures that could be truly enforced.
This is attested to by what is happening in the West, where when Internet first emerged, it was hailed as a great emancipator, a decentralizing and democratizing force. Thus access to information was deemed part and parcel of press freedom.
As we can see today, it has turned out to be a false promise, with more and more countries in the West mulling stronger action against disrupting flow of rumors, fake news and improper information online.
Last May, the UK parliamentary Home Affairs Committee strongly criticized social media companies for failing to remove seriously … illegal content, saying they are “shamefully far” from taking sufficient action to tackle hate and dangerous content on their sites.
The committee recommended the government assess whether failure to remove illegal material is in itself a crime and, if not, how the law should be strengthened.
The government was also asked to require social media companies to contribute to the Metropolitan Police for the costs of enforcement activities which should rightfully be carried out by the companies themselves.
In Italy, according to a bill submitted to the parliament last February, those in charge of online companies that have published fake news could be jailed for up to two years.
In the US, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg is allegedly committed this year to focusing on responding to the growing concern that Facebook is dispensing fake news.
These are just some of the mounting signs we can no longer turn a blind eye to what these “technology” companies are doing at the expense of the health of our society.