Chinese authorities have started to detain Internet users for allegedly spreading online rumors, in its latest measure to control the country's social media sites.
China's State Internet Information Office said it determined several online Internet rumors were fabricated, and instructed relevant departments to prosecute the offenders, according to a Tuesday report from China's state-run press agency Xinhua.
The so-called rumors include a case where a user spread alleged misinformation about income tax provisions by forging state documents. The user was detained for 15 days. In another case, a Chinese college student from the province of Yunnan was detained after spreading what the government called a rumor on blogs and forums, about an incident where a man killed eight officials in his village. The "rumor" had said the man killed the officials because of pollution generated from a cement factory.
China already censors the Internet heavily for anti-government and politically sensitive content, with local websites and news organizations required to abide by the laws. But in recent months, Chinese authorities have talked about the need to control the country's popular microblogging websites, also known in Chinese as weibo, which operate much like the U.S.'s Twitter service.
While the microblogging sites have gained hundreds of millions of Internet users, the sites have also become a hotbed for rumors. This past August, a top Chinese communist party official urged Internet companies to stop the spread of fake information.
In taking action against the recent round of online rumors, authorities have also closed several microblogging accounts, according to the Xinhua report. The websites operating the accounts have been required to make changes. Authorities are also currently looking to find the originators of several other rumors, including one that involves a female middle-school student being paid for sex by a government official.
China's State Internet Information Office could not be reached for immediate comment. But according to the report, the office said certain users and websites that lack credibility are disrupting the orderly spread of information with their rumors. "This is affecting the social order, and it must be dealt with according to the law. We will not allow the unhealthy trend of rumors being spread over the Internet," the office said.
News of the detentions come as China has grown to understand the importance of online social networks, as well as the influence they can have over society, said Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. That lesson became apparent when in July, Chinese Internet users took to the nation's microblogs to complain and criticize authorities' handling of a high-speed train wreck that killed dozens.
"The government wants to neuter the weibo. It wants to be able to frighten people into not sharing information, to think twice about sharing information which might or might not be 'sensitive'," Kine said.
Governments have a right to stop the spread of information that may be harmful to the public, Kine said. But in the case of China's actions, there has been no independent regulatory body set up to determine what information is in fact rumor. "This is a huge problem in terms of freedom of expression," he said, adding that Chinese microblogs may eventually resort to requiring their users to register with their real names.
Some Chinese Internet users, however, said in interviews that they support the government's actions.
A Chinese microblog user, named Chen Zhirong, said all online rumors should be stopped, and that the Internet users behind them should be held responsible. "Right now, the rumors on the Internet and on microblogs have been rampant," he said. "To not fight them and to not punish the rumor starters, will only encourage the arrogance of the Internet firms operating the sites."
Another Chinese microblog user, who declined to give his real name, said authorities must strictly deal with the online rumors. "These rumors can damage the goodness of ordinary Chinese people," he said.