The Chinese government’s problematic efforts to judge online comments

This is just one incident, but as the idea of ​​building social credit increasingly seeps into other regulations, it reveals the risks of standardizing a practice where the government makes moral judgments for its people.

Just last week, China’s Cyberspace Administration finalized an ordinance devoted solely to “online comments,” which I covered when it was first proposed in June. The main purpose of the regulation is to subject social media interactions, including those in newer forms like live streams, to the same tight controls that China has always had for other online content.

These rules aren’t really part of the broader social credit system, but I found some familiar language in the document nonetheless. It requires social media platforms to “perform credit checks on users’ behavior when commenting on posts” and “perform credit checks on the management of post comments by producer-operators of public accounts”.

The idea is that if an influencer or a user posts things that are not trustworthy, that should be reflected in the person’s credit rating. And the result of the credit check determines “the range of services and functionalities” that are offered to people on certain platforms.

This isn’t the only specific example of the Chinese government using the meaning of “creditworthiness” or “trust” to justify more regulation. This became clear when the government decided to create a blacklist of celebrities who promote “bad” morals, crack down on social media bots and spam, and assign accountability to admins of private group chats.

All this is to say that the ongoing development of China’s social credit system is often synchronized with the development of more authoritarian politics. “As China increasingly shifts its focus to people’s social and cultural lives, and further regulates the content of entertainment, education and speech, these rules will also be subject to credit enforcement,” legal scholar Jeremy Daum wrote in 2021.

Still, before you go I would like to warn against the tendency to exaggerate perceived risks which has happened repeatedly when people have debated the Social Credit system.

The good news is that until now, the overlap between social credit and online language control has been very limited. The 2019 draft regulation establishing a social credit system for the internet sector has still not come into force. And much of the talk about setting up social media credit rating systems, as required by the latest regulation on online comments, looks more like wishful thinking than practical guidance at this point. Some social platforms run their own “credit scores” — Weibo has one for every user and Douyin has one for shopping influencers — but these are more of a side feature that few in China would say are paramount.

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