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    China to Trace Online Rumors at Source to Combat Disinformation

    The country’s top internet regulator seeks to implement a “long-term” solution to prevent repeated offenses.

    China plans to root out online rumors by striking their origins.

    The country’s top internet regulator said that it would set up mechanisms to trace both the origins of the rumors and online platforms responsible for publishing such posts. Violators would be banned from registering new accounts across the network, with serious breaches handled by relevant law enforcement units.

    “(Rumors) not only infringes on the dignity, reputation, and privacy of others but also seriously pollutes the social atmosphere, so it must be severely cracked down on,” Zhang Yongjun, an officer with the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), said during a press conference Thursday.

    China’s internet regulators closely guard the country’s cybersphere and regularly implement “clean-up campaigns” to wipe content which the authorities deem harmful or sensitive. The cyber authority has already scrubbed 879,000 pieces of harmful information and punished 41,000 illegal accounts so far this year.

    The CAC planned to implement a “long-term” solution to prevent repeated offenses, and put greater responsibility on online platforms to identify and stop the spread of rumors, according to Zhang.

    Li Xiangnong, senior partner at Shanghai P&W Partners, told Sixth Tone that the internet is to be blamed for the increase in rumors, with users spreading them both intentionally and unintentionally. He added that the government’s tracing mechanism could potentially stifle rumors from the source.

    “Issuing a statement later to refute rumors only treats the symptoms but not the root cause,” he said, referring to the actions most companies and authorities take.

    China currently has more than 1 billion internet users, with a 73% online penetration rate. A report on the country’s internet integrity published in December 2020 showed that over two-thirds of respondents frequently encounter online rumors.

    In 2020, a woman was fired by her employer and later diagnosed with depression after a secretly filmed video claiming she was “seducing a delivery man” went viral online. The two defendants were handed a one-year prison sentence and a two-year suspended sentence for defamation last April.

    Another post involving a grandfather and his granddaughter falsely accused of being a couple also went viral last year, with both experiencing online abuse. The individual who started the rumor was detained in November, and the case is still being investigated.

    Mao Kuai, a law lecturer from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu, said while the government’s initiative of making platforms accountable for inadequately handling rumors was a favorable step, he was concerned that excessive interventions could potentially restrict online expression even more.

    “The source could be a child who made the joke, but it might be some other main forces who spread it and they might be very good at hiding themselves,” Mao told Sixth Tone. “What role the source-tracing mechanism can play remains to be seen.”

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: DigitalVision Vectors/VCG)