Most people create a video or tweet with hopes that others will see what they’ve said and spread it around. Going viral is often the goal of online content creation — but people posting to social media in China can end up in jail if their popular posts are deemed libelous.
On Monday, Chinese authorities bolstered its campaign against spreading rumors and criticism online. China’s Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a statement outlining how the cases would be prosecuted, according to the social and financial damage they cause. These tightened rules will affect bloggers and publishers whose posts are seen by 5,000 or more Internet users or receive over 500 reposts or forwards. They can go to jail for up to three years if the content they post is deemed illegal.
So what’s considered illegal? Well, anything that undermines Communist Party rule, as well as repeating misinformation. The Associated Press reports that one blogger in Eastern China was taken into custody after he gave the wrong death toll for a car accident, saying that there were 16 fatalities when there were only 10. The AFP reported that 27 people from Wuhan were detained following a police bust of a company accused of spreading rumors.
Since almost any political opposition can fall under the umbrella of illegal activity, this new rule could put many prominent, outspoken digital critics behind bars. And some popular bloggers had already caught the ire of Chinese authorities before this announcement; last month, Chinese-American commenter and investor Charlie Xue was arrested on prostitution solicitation charges, though the arrest came at the same time as the government intensified its crackdown on outspoken online figures and Xue, who has over 12 million followers on Weibo, fit the bill for a political critic. Many commenters believe this arrest was an attempt to silence Xue rather than a genuine prostitution bust.
China’s stance on press freedom has long been a topic of contention, so these strengthened libel laws will likely continue to inhibit members of the press and microbloggers from publishing content critical of ruling parties, even content in a casual context like tweets and Facebook updates.