The crackdown on Internet rumors is intensifying.
Previously, it mainly zeroed in on random individuals who issued bomb threats and falsely warned of fires and other public safety crises.
Now the campaign seems to have entered a new phase, increasingly targeting organized rumor-mongers who manipulate Internet freedoms for their personal gain.
Police recently busted a ring of rumor-mongers and made a few arrests, bringing into the open the seedy world of rumor generators and their machinations.
Qin Zhihui, 30, and Yang Xiuyu, 40, two key members of a Beijing-based marketing firm, have been detained for deliberate mud-slinging. Their firm is actually a cover for a de-facto rumor mill.
Their smear campaign started as early as July 23, 2011, when a high-speed train collision in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, caused scores of casualties.
In the wake of the accident, rumors surfaced online that the Chinese government paid the family of an Italian victim 30 million euros (US$40 million) in compensation — in sharp contrast to what little compensation the families of Chinese victims received.
The discrepancy caused widespread anger, which only dissipated when authorities stepped in to dismiss the assertion.
Qin and Yang, who went by the aliases of “Qin Huohuo” and “Li’er Chai’si,” had since made it their mission to slander celebrity figures and fabricate negative news.
Over the years, they made a lot of damning accusations against high-profile public figures.
For instance, they claimed that Zhang Haidi, a Helen-Keller-like figure and the president of China’s association of the disabled, actually holds Japanese citizenship. Zhang denied the claim.
Another victim is General Luo Yuan, a well-known military commentator, who the duo depicted as a deserter during China’s War of Self-Defense Against Vietnam’s Aggression that started in 1979.
Rumor had it that his family either moved to the United States or had close foreign connections, which suggested Luo is a double-dealing hypocrite.
If those accusations were the sole concern of the maligned celebrities themselves, then the public could sit back to enjoy the show, however, the last thing the public can tolerate is an incriminating charge against Lei Feng (1940-1962), a model soldier known for his selflessness and his motto, “Serve the people.”
In a seditious thread Qin posted online, Lei Feng was described as simply a propaganda hero created by and for the state, while in reality he was a corrupt figure fond of a luxurious lifestyle, something out of character with his reputation for thrift.
The motivation for mud-slinging was expressed by the duo themselves in a public statement. “To destroy overnight the wealth and fame some people amassed over a lifetime, we must fan the flames of netizens’ frustrations.”
The Internet has provided an outlet for their hatred of the rich and powerful, amplified by others who share their resentment.
In an interview with Xinhua on Wednesday, conducted in a Beijing detention house, Yang said he was thrilled when print media followed up on the news he had fabricated.
But the duo is not just some angry vigilantes rejoicing in spreading dirt about others. They want more than the satisfaction of bringing down big names. After they garnered enough publicity, they went on to create a business model and cashed in on it.
The way they do this is no longer news to anyone familiar with how China’s blogosphere can be tapped for business potential. (There’re many so-called “water armies” that “pour” out paid comment.)
Web-savvy businesses often approach influential “opinion leaders” for cooperation to promote their goods and services.
Qin and Yang have taken their model to a higher level. They don’t promote products and people but prosper by selling smut and porn.
According to media reports, they masterminded the frenzy over sex goddesses such as Gan Lulu, who never misses a chance to strip for the pleasure of voyeurs at auto and variety shows.
The duo stands to share the spoils from her appearance fees.
Well aware that vulgarity sells, they packaged and paraded material girls boasting about intimate relationships with sugar daddies who pad their lifestyles with plush goodies and privileges.
In a society often driven by an eyeball economy, it makes economic sense to pander to the lowest common denominator, so much so that it has almost become a cardinal rule for aspiring starlets to accept the casting couch and reveal as much cleavage as possible.
It’s a price they are willing to pay for overnight fame, boosted by people like Qin and Yang.
It goes without saying that what Qin, Yang and their likes have done is accelerate the worsening of social morality.
What’s interesting about their arrest is not how insidious and unscrupulous they are, because that’s an old story.
Instead, it is worth asking why they could be taken so seriously. Doesn’t it insult our intelligence to know that rumor-monger Qin only finished high school, but managed to fool many people far better educated?
Assuming the worst
Of course, one can say the social atmosphere swelled their ranks.
A society lacking in transparency is a hot bed for rumors. But a bigger reason is that people habitually assume the worst, without thinking they may be going mad over a purely fictitious event.
As Gustave Le Bon argued in his seminal work on mass psychology “The Crowd,” “the masses have never thirsted after truth. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
Rumor-mongering is developing into an industry. Since money is now at stake, it takes extra efforts and determination to quash it.
Authorities have to face the fact that their own lack of transparency and delay in responding to debilitating rumors are an invitation for more.
A more acute issue is how to purify the social atmosphere, to eliminate the oxygen on which rumors thrive. That means winning back the trust of people who would rather believe demagogues than government officials, news media and “experts.”