China is vowing anew to punish people who post rumors and falsehoods on the Internet as the government tries to rein in forums that have increasingly become sources of debate and criticism.
A spokesperson for the State Internet Information Office, a regulatory body under China's Cabinet, said in a statement released late Friday that Internet rumors and hoaxes were "malignant tumors" that harm social stability. The unnamed spokesperson's statement, which was carried by the official Xinhua News Agency, called on Internet users to abide by laws and stop spreading rumors, and urged websites to up their policing of content.
Drawing the spokesperson's particular ire were the salacious, sarcastic postings on the popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo service that purported to be from a 22-year-old prostitute but were really posted by a 31-year-old male editor. Xinhua said the "prostitute's diary" account attracted more than 250,000 followers before the author's true identity was discovered and the account shut down.
Social media sites that are platforms for users to generate content are posing a challenge for China's authoritarian government, which is used to controlling what media tell people. After a crash on the showcase high-speed rail system in July, the government lost control of the message on the Internet, as people questioned, criticized and ridiculed the official response.
Soon afterward, the government began issuing warnings about untrammeled speech on the Internet and the need for companies to remove "rumors" and "false news," which are widely seen as code words for criticisms. The spokesperson's statement ordered local authorities and websites to penalize offenders.
Under Chinese regulations, spreading rumors is punishable by five to 10 days in jail plus a 500 yuan ($80) fine. In March this year, a resident of the city of Hangzhou received the maximum penalty for warning people to stay away from seafood from eastern China because the seas were being contaminated by leaks from the Japanese nuclear power plant damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.
Twitter-like microblogs, which have about 200 million users in China, have come under particular scrutiny. After Sina Corp. received a pointed visit from a Politburo member, the company said it would freeze the accounts on its widely used Weibo service for a month of anyone found spreading rumors.