The Chinese government’s problematic research to judge online comments

The Chinese government's problematic research to judge online comments

This is just an accident, but as the idea of ​​building a social creditworthiness infiltrates more and more legislation, it reveals the risks of standardizing a practice in which government makes moral judgments for its people.

Just last week, China’s cyberspace administration finalized a regulation dedicated entirely to “online commenting,” which I mentioned when it was first proposed in June. The main purpose of the regulation is to place interactions on social media, including those in newer forms such as live streams, under the same strict controls that China has always had for other online content.

These rules aren’t really part of the larger social credit system, but I found some familiar language in the document nonetheless. It calls for social media platforms to “conduct merit assessments of user conduct in commenting on posts” and “conduct merit assessments of post comment handling by public account producers-operators.”

The idea is that if an influencer or user posts things that aren’t trustworthy, that should be reflected in the person’s credit rating. And the credit score results will determine the “scope of services and features” offered to people on certain platforms.

It’s not the only specific example of the Chinese government using the importance of “credibility” or “trust” to justify more regulation. This was seen when the government decided to establish a blacklist of celebrities promoting “bad” morals, crack down on social media bots and spam, and designate the responsibilities of administrators of private group chats.

All of this is to say that the ongoing development of China’s social credit system is often in sync with the development of more authoritarian policies. “As China increasingly turns its attention to people’s social and cultural life, further regulating the content of entertainment, education and speech, such rules will also become subject to credit enforcement,” legal scholar Jeremy Daum wrote in the 2021.

However, before you go, I want to warn against the tendency to exaggerate perceived risks, which has happened repeatedly when people have discussed the social credit system.

The good news is that so far, the intersection between social credit and online discourse control has been very limited. The 2019 draft regulation to build a social credit system for the internet sector has not yet become law. And much of the talk about establishing credit rating systems for social media, such as that required by the latest online commenting regulation, seems more wishful thinking than practical guidance at this point. Some social platforms manage their own “credit scores” — Weibo has one for every user and Douyin has one for shopping influencers — but these are other secondary features that few in China would say rank first.

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