Microblog needs supervision

By Gong Wen
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, August 15, 2011
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Many Chinese microbloggers recently have criticized China Central Television (CCTV) for its reports and comments on the country's microblogging platforms. On a morning news program, CCTV criticized the spread of rumors on the Twitter-like sites, saying some microbloggers spread fake news for economic gain. "What is the microblog's moral bottom line?" the program asked.

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CCTV is not off base here. Microblogs are playing a more and more important agenda setting and watchdog role. A number of corruption cases have been exposed on the sites. Many heated problems have been debated via the platforms, and some have even been solved. But there exist two major categories of misbehavior on microbloging platforms that deserve our attention: First, marketers engage in sensational promotion in an effort to generate hype for some person or product. Second, users abuse the sites to manufacture and spread fake news and rumors. The rush by Chinese consumers to buy salt during the Japan nuclear crisis this year is a typical example of the great impact these rumors can have.

Many scholars regard microblogs as a part of the "public sphere," a term proposed by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, which means "a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment." But without full expression of opinions by different groups – positive and negative, internal and external – an appropriate common judgment cannot be reached. Moreover, the microblog itself is a platform embracing multiple values and different voices. This very characteristic has attracted millions of people to participate in the microblogging community. Therefore, it is vitally important that microbloggers listen to both internal and external criticism to ensure the healthy development of the microblog.

Unfortunately, it seems that most microbloggers refuse to accept any criticism of their chosen medium, no matter if it comes from CCTV, intellectuals or other bloggers. Negative comments, reasonable or not, will invite sharp criticism. Rational voices that suggest microbloggers engage in some self-reflection are swallowed up by a torrent of irrational condemnation.

Some bloggers claim microblogs regulate themselves, making outside interference by the traditional media unnecessary. Yes, some self-regulating function does exist, but this does not mean bloggers should reject all external criticism. On the contrary, external supervision and criticism can aid this process.

Some worry that external criticism may damage the independence of the microblog. But welcoming and accepting criticism does not mean surrendering to authorities or giving up microblogs' critical viewpoint on current affairs. Quite the opposite; it shows the virtue of being open-minded and is the only way to help clean the environment and avoid spreading the rumors and fake news that have proved such a bad influence on microblogs and society as a whole.

Fortunately, having realized the importance of accepting criticism, some Internet users have organized to fight microblog misbehavior, forming groups such as the "Rumor Clarification Association".

Still, these voluntary organizations are merely one aspect of external supervision, and are not enough to fight against the rapid spread of rumors. The government and the companies that operate the microblogging sites ought to play some role.

The government should bear two responsibilities: First, they should verify rumors to lessen fear and give the real story. Second, they should punish those who create rumors and cause problems. Of course, the penalty has to be in accordance with relevant laws. The major duty of the operators is to effectively check the messages published for inaccuracies.

Currently, microbloging is an imperfect public sphere that can successfully link authorities and the common people, uniting different social groups to form common judgment. In order to achieve this goal, external supervision and criticism are indispensable.

Gong Wen is a visiting scholar at the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.


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