"Democracy means that an early morning knock on the door is the milkman", wrote once Winston Churchill. In China, however, a knock on the door may be a slightly more exciting event.
The online newspaper China Economy (中国经济网) in a recent article reported on the PRC's so-called Internet Police (网络警察) and its job to 'patrol the net'. One of the main responsibilities of the Internet Police is to stop the spreading of 'unfounded rumours'.
"Internet rumours," explains the article, "are the propagation of unfounded news via mediums such as chat rooms, social networks, forums etc. Internet rumours spread suddenly and fast, so that they can have an extremely negative impact on social order. Most especially, when an important event happens, such rumours can cause panic and jeopardise social stability."
Citing the Legal Daily (法制日报), a newspaper issued by the PRC Ministry of Justice, China Economy gives an example of how the Internet Police cracks down on internet rumours.
On April 20 of this year a powerful earthquake struck Sichuan Province. On the 22nd a netizen claimed that in the city of Ya'an 6000 people had lost their lives. At around 8:30 an Internet Police unit of the Public Security Bureau (公安局网络警察) of Changshu City who were patrolling the internet, discovered this message on a forum group of the famous Chinese social network QQ. It had been written by a user by the name of "Taiwan Air Force" (台湾空军).
"When we discover that someone has spread rumours online," said a policeman named Xue Jing (薛景), "we first have to find the offender, understand the circumstances and then verify the facts."
On the 23rd the Internet Police summoned and arrested the suspect, a man named Lu. Mr. Lu admitted to having spread false information about the number of victims of the earthquake. He justified his action by saying that he was just curious and wanted to attract other people's attention, so he forwarded the information he had found online without thinking too much about it.
"In view of Mr. Lu's positive attitude," says the paper, "of the fact that he admitted his mistake and promptly clarified his improper remarks, he corrected the negative influence of his words, and there won't be serious repercussions, but only a disciplinary punishment."
According to Internet policeman Xue Jing, internet rumours can have a negative impact on the government's credibility. If a person claims that 6000 people died, how can common people be certain of the true figures? They will inevitably have doubts. It is clear that this will be detrimental for the work of government departments, he stated.
The argument put forth by the paper is that rumours are not simply harmless misinformation, but a threat to social stability and order, and that it is necessary to patrol the internet 24-hours a day in order to prevent rumours from spreading.
It is obvious that controlling information is considered a priority by the government. But, as it often happens, the line between what could even be considered legitimate intrusion of the authorities in private citizens' lives and repression is blurred and contradictory.
First of all, the assumption that rumours can harm social order has to be proved, and I think that it cannot be proved. Mistrust of the institutions is hardly any socially disruptive phenomenon, but rather a legitimate act of intellectual freedom on the part of the citizens.
Second, the control of information can easily be abused in order to prevent news from spreading which the government deems dangerous. For instance, during the Jasmine Revolution in Egypt, some people who sent pictures of the events to friends also received a visit from the Internet Police.