China's ultra-popular, Twitter-like service moves too fast for censors or propagandists to keep up, but it's changing more than just the spread of information.
When the message appeared on the Weibo account of Xinhua, China's official news agency on April 10, announcing charges against the family of high-profile party leader Bo Xilai, it ended many days of public speculation on China's largest political crisis in decades. But it also left Chinese web users even more deeply confused about the distinction between political truth and rumor, one that has always been hazy in China but is now blurred even more by social media.
Chinese web users began speculating, following Bo's firing as Chongqing party chief in March, about the Bo family's possible role in the mysterious death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman with close ties to the family. China's Internet censors muzzled the online discussions. The government spokesmen stonewalled inquiries from the British government and told curious Chinese that Heywood died of "excessive drinking," admonishing them "not to spread groundless rumor."
On the morning of April 11, Chinese web users woke up to find that the reports that had previously filled their Weibo pages -- in coded words adopted to evade the censors -- now featured the front page of every official newspaper. The rumor, repressed by censors and dodged by government spokesmen, had become a state-approved fact overnight.
"What was treated as attacks spread by 'international reactionary forces' has now become truth. Then what other 'truths' exposed by foreign media should we believe?...God knows!" wrote Weibo user Jieyigongjiang. "How did it all become truth? Was I being fooled?" user Zousifanye asked.
This hall-of-mirrors system can be confusing even for the officials who run it.
For China's new generation of tech-savvy youth, who compose the bulk of the nation's estimated 300 million Weibo users, the downfall of Bo Xilai is the largest political crisis they have witnessed. The sudden volatility of the official versions of truth on the story has left many of them deeply confused. Some see this as a victory for Weibo, which is moderated by censors but often too free-wheeling and fast-moving for them to maintain total control, over more traditional media, which is openly run by the state. "In this political drama that took place in Yuzhou [alternative name for Chongqing], all the media outlets were following Weibo. The power of social media is manifested here," user Tujiayefu wrote. User Kangjialin agreed: " 'Rumor' is the proof that mainstream media is now falling behind Weibo."
The government controls all forms of media in China, including Weibo. But on occasions censorship of Weibo is known to relax, allowing windows of free speech, particularly in the cases of breaking news. Chinese distrust of the country's traditional media, which regularly covers up food scandals and human rights violations, is leading many people to turn to Weibo for information and news. The Twitter-like service has helped expose incidents of mafia intimidation and money laundering. Weibo-based stories like that of Guo Meimei, the 20-year-old "senior official" at the state-run Red Cross Society who posted photos of her new Lamborghini and Maserati online, ignited firestorms of discussions on weightier, more sensitive, and sometimes forbidden subjects such as corruption within state-run social organizations.
In the West, social media is treated skeptically for the exact same reason that it is so embraced in China: it is rife with rumors. Its break-neck speed allows little time for fact-checking or editorial supervision, which also means it can move too quickly for censors. Its noisy, open-source discussion -- anyone can say anything and watch it spread -- makes it tougher for Western users to trust, but easier for Chinese users, who know that censors can pressure official news organizations but not a hundred million anonymous citizen-bloggers. That anonymity is slowly receding, but this hasn't done much damage to the service's popularity or power.
In the Bo Xilai saga, many Weibo users had at first dismissed the dramatic speculations over the Communist Party's divisive infighting as sensationalized rumors. Now that the rumors have turned out to be true, they're re-examining the established beliefs that led them to reject the stories and to take the officials at their word. "The result of rumor turning truth is that from now on all rumors will become more trustworthy," concluded Potomac Xiaowu.
The government is fighting back, reminding Chinese web users that Weibo is also a hot bed of invented rumors, and that believing and spreading them can bring real consequences. Less than a month ago, whispers circulated on Weibo of troop movements near the leadership's Zhongnanhai compound in central Beijing. Those whispers soon grew into a full-blown account of a coup being staged by Bo's Party allies in Beijing. Tanks purportedly rolled in and gunshots were fired, a story with terrifying echoes of the 1989 protest on Tiananmen Square. The rumors quickly made it into Western media. Just as it became clear that these stories weren't true, the government ordered the shutdown of 16 websites and detention of six people over the rumors, which it clearly considered threats to public order. The two massive Weibo sites, Sina and Tencent, were forced to shut down their comment function for three days in order to "carry out a concentrated cleanup."
China's heavy-handed censorship may now actually accelerate the spread of rumors, which could be seen as more plausible precisely because they are censored. Chinese web users trying to figure out the most likely truth must speculate not only about the rumors themselves, but also about every move the government makes in response. Did the state order censors to crack down on a particular story because they want quell a false and potentially destabilizing rumor or because they want to prevent an uncomfortable truth from spreading? If censors clamp down on a growing rumor later than expected or not at all, is this because they're simply slow or because government wants to build up public attention for its own purposes? In the days immediately after Bo's removal from his Chongqing office, for example, Internet rumors about his misdeeds circulated freely, in what many suspect was a state effort to build public knowledge of his corruption and turn people against him. For Chinese netizens trying to parse out truth from rumors, every story and its government response are a new mystery, and the guessing game never really ends.
This hall-of-mirrors system can be confusing even for the officials who run it, and social media consumers are not the only people in China who can confuse truth and rumor. Last February, as protest movements stormed the Middle East, starting with the "Jasmine revolution" in Tunisia, a crowd gathered quietly in central Beijing after anonymous calls for their own Jasmine protests. The small crowd was outnumbered by skittish police, not to mention a number of Western reporters. Both groups had also caught the rumor and responded swiftly.
The movement was ended before it had really started, but it continued to ripple through the life of common Chinese citizens in ways its initiators had probably not expected. In the next months, although few or no protesters actually gathered and there seemed to be little momentum for an Arab Spring-style movement, the government seemed to take the social media mumblings far more seriously than the actual activists. Streets were blocked and plainclothes police were stationed at shopping malls and movie theaters every few hundred of feet. Security officials detained dozens of leading activists, including artist Ai Weiwei, in apparent fear of their stirring further unrest, and threatened foreign journalists for reporting on the incident. When Chinese people realized the word "jasmine" was blocked from the Internet and from text messages, though euphemisms for the word were now well-known, and the flower was banned at Beijing botanic markets, the news of the pseudo-revolution had reached a wide public. The government, in its effort to quell the rumor, had ballooned it into an alternate version of truth. Their over-reaction had communicated the rumors of a revolution far more powerfully than had the actual rumors or its proponents.
The tug-of-war between the government and the people over truth and rumor happens every day in today's China. The rise of social media has made the struggle harder and the stakes higher. The night the government announced the charges against Bo Xilai, a crowd of thousands gathered in Chongqing and clashed with local police. The government vigorously denied any connection between the incident and Bo's expulsion, meanwhile moving to delete relevant messages and photos from Weibo. The Chinese web users reveling in the role of social networking sites in revealing the Bo scandals once again fell into debates, while others have been reflecting on larger questions. "Why does the U.S. not censor rumors?" asked one Weibo user last November. "No matter how wild they are, nobody bans them, and the creators of rumors do not worry about getting arrested. Perhaps for places where truth persists, rumors have no harm. Only places that lack truth are fearful of rumors."
Had the censors tried to look for the original writer of this message, they would not have found him or her. The name is lost amid millions of others, who forward the message after each round of rumor-clearing seizes Weibo in a state-run information purge that can never quite keep up.