Lessons For The Left: How China Handles Fake News And Cuts Off 700 Million Web Users From The World

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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Ongoing efforts in the U.S. to censor the internet in response to a liberal outcry over “fake news” follow in the footsteps of a country notorious for its internet censorship practices.

There is a growing controversy in the U.S. over the issue of “fake news.” The discussion has taken on very partisan political overtones, with some critics using the “fake news” label to condemn legitimate news sources and articles that present information inconsistent with their particular political views. For instance, many left-wing critics blame the intentional spread of disinformation for President-elect Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Some people are now calling for internet censorship on prominent social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as primary search engines like Google, as a solution.

While the current situation is an emerging problem in the U.S., internet censorship for various political purposes is not a new issue in countries like China.

China has been using “rumors” and “fake news” to justify censoring the internet and domestic social media platforms, such as WeChat and Weibo, for years now.

“Facebook is launching a rumor-busting censorship system, but it’s a four full years behind Weibo,” Sina Tech argued recently.

China, which ranks dead last on Freedom House’s internet freedom list, escalated its campaign against fake news this past summer.

“It is forbidden to use hearsay to create news or use conjecture and imagination to distort the facts,” the Cyberspace Administration of China declared in July, “All levels of the cyberspace administration must earnestly fulfill their management responsibility for internet content, strengthen supervision and investigation, severely probe and handle fake and unfactual news.”

The “fake news” discussion in the U.S. has China feeling vindicated after years of Western criticism.

“China’s crackdown on online rumors a few years ago was harshly condemned by the West,” the Global Times reported, “Things [have] changed really quickly, as the anxiety over Internet management has been transferred to the U.S.”

Unlike China, which censors almost entirely for political purposes, the U.S. is still largely committed to the pursuit of factual accuracy, but the role of partisan politics in the U.S. debate puts the discussion on a slippery slope.

China intensified the fight against fake news in early December.

Website operators in Xinjiang who create, compile, spread, release or copy information considered by the state to be harmful or false will face a fine of up to $72,000.

The new rules and regulations were designed to “prevent and punish the online spread of false news” with the potential to “disturb social stability.”

Acceptable news must be run through state-sponsored channels and serves the needs of the ruling Communist Party of China, often coincidentally resulting in the production of “fake news.”

“Media outlets that are close to the government have a higher tendency to fabricate news,” asserts Chinese journalist Chang Ping, who reportedly now resides abroad.

China’s attempts to combat the spread of fake news are part of the massive, systematic internet-censorship activities that have been ongoing for almost two decades.

China sent its first e-mail in 1987. “Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner of the world,” the message read.

In the 1990s, shortly after the arrival of the internet in China, the Chinese government began developing the infamous Great Firewall of China, the most well-recognized component of the much larger Golden Shield Project. The shield is a domestic censorship and surveillance system that prevents the country’s roughly 700 million internet users from accessing unacceptable foreign content online.

The system is said to be based on the thoughts of Deng Xiaoping, who famously stated, “If you open a window to get some fresh air, expect a few flies to come in too.” The Chinese government is concerned that competing political ideologies will lead to rising dissent in China.

China has three main criteria for censoring the internet: content must not negatively impact social stability, lead to organized protests, or threaten the ruling party.

There are an estimated 100,000 people at all levels of government involved in censoring the internet. China utilizes three main approaches: IP blocking, DNS filtering and redirection, and URL and packet filtering.

China also engages in VPN recognition to crack down on people attempting to bypass the system.

China also heavily monitors Chinese social media platforms and bans unmanageable foreign platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Users and accounts that do not conform to the rules put in place by the state are blocked or deleted.

The Chinese government emphasizes “cyber sovereignty” over a free, borderless internet.

For a long time, China denied that it engaged in censorship.

“It is a misuse of words if you say ‘content censorship.’ But no censorship does not mean there is no management,” explained Lu Wei, chief of the State Internet Information Office, claimed last year.

“As for who comes to my home, I have to choose to make sure those who come are friends,” he added.

Others argued that Chinese people simply do not want to access foreign content or use foreign applications.

China has recently become more vocal in its promotion of its vision for a restricted internet and is even praising the “fake news” debate in the U.S.

“I don’t think anybody knows why Trump won, but it’s a good move that the U.S. is trying to regulate social media; it’s overdue,” Kam Chow Wong, a former Hong Kong police officer, told the Washington Post at the Third World Internet Conference recently held in Wuzhen.

“If you regulate in an appropriate manner, it will make it more useful, then it will be more free,” he further explained.

The situations in China and the U.S. are still very different, but it is noteworthy that America’s current trajectory is receiving praise from a country that has been labeled one of “the worst abusers of internet freedom.”

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Ryan Pickrell