Rule of Law: The Internet and Public Pressure

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Been sitting on this issue for a couple weeks as it is not time sensitive.

Two things set me to cogitating on this recently. The first was all the ink spilled on the Green Dam web filter story, specifically how the government’s decision to pull back and not mandate that all PCs sold in China would have the web filter installed was a victory for those who spoke out against the policy. See in particular this Op/Ed in the Guardian.

Second was a thoughtful article by David Bandurski entitled “Are China’s Leaders Becoming More Responsive?”

Are China’s leaders becoming more responsive to the concerns and demands of the public? Is China, thanks to the Internet, moving toward a more “deliberative” and participatory political culture? (China Media Project)

This is of course bundled up with my regular scribblings on the Rule of Law. There are lots of examples of public pressure on government decisions of late, from criminal prosecutions to enterprise closings to environmental problems. These are all heavily publicized and often pit the public (usually backing the “little guy” in the case) against bad actors at the local government level or executives in large companies.

This is a black and white issue, yes? Perhaps in utopia, but not in the real world.

It’s very easy, in a romantic sort of way, to come out on the side of the poor criminal defendant who is being treated unfairly by a corrupt or overzealous prosecutor.

It makes sense to lend support to a group of villagers who have seen family members contract cancer and other diseases due to contaminated runoff from a local factory.

One almost cannot help oneself to speak out against something like the Green Dam web filter, which stands for everything beloved by the online cognoscenti.

No argument from me on those cases or on similar issues. But when we generalize about the awesome new power of public pressure, mostly originating from online fora, I think we open the door to some potentially dangerous consequences.

We have already seen the “human flesh search engine” phenomenon, whereby some targets are set upon by online mobs of folks who dig up dirt on individuals suspected of criminal activity or other offenses.

Sometimes these online mobs go after people who have committed no crimes but have simply acted in contravention of what some feel are acceptable acts in civil society.

But who are they to judge? Who sets the standards, and who gives the marching orders?

I don’t like mobs. I don’t like them when they are ugly and are motivated by hate and fear. I also don’t like them when they adopt the indicia of “citizen journalism” and act out of a preceived sense of the greater good.

I don’t like mobs because they are all kind of the same, it just depends on your point of view. That’s why they are dangerous.

I have a feeling that a lot of people would disagree with my use of the word “mob” in this sense. They would also say that these online commentators have done a lot of good over the past few years, often assisting the Central Government in going after corrupt local leaders.

That’s all true. But this public participation that it so seductive, particularly to Western political commentators hungry for any indication of political reform in China, is a poor conduit for the desires of the public to reach the ears of power.

Among other things, online activity encompasses a small slice of the public, dialogue often involves a great deal of misinformation, and the anonymous nature of the dialogue allows for a certain hyperbolic tone of discourse.

I worry that we (Westerners in particular, and I include myself) tend to romanticize online activity, emphasizing the “good stories” when the players are easy to identify and the issues are clear, but fail to point out when mob pressure has ended up in simple harassment of individuals and government officials.

If we continue encouraging this sort of thing, won’t we simply end up having more bad outcomes along with the good ones? Is that a reasonable price to pay for increased public/government dialogue or should we reserve our praise for “real” reform measures?

2 responses on “Rule of Law: The Internet and Public Pressure

  1. J

    A slightly off-topic response, but…

    Admittedly stating the obvious here, but the biggest problem with these internet users is most likely the anonymity afforded them by the internet. Yes, the majority can probably be tracked down via their IP addresses etc. etc. But I would be interested to know how many non-government parties are capable of tracking them down, especially without breaking – or bending – any laws? And whether the Chinese government would be willing to do so every time an official or public figure was slandered? Highly unlikely. That many of these accusations may be true is irrelevant.

    The point I’m trying to make is simple and presumably applies to most countries around the world: It’s very easy to slander an individual or an organisation on the internet. Anonymously. With the right approach – especially in countries such as Japan or China – you can create hype online and perhaps even get a story in one of the national newspapers. In effect, you can manipulate public opinion. Create doubt, raise suspicions. And in a nation as volatile as China certainly appears to be, for example with regards to Japan and the Japanese in spite of the vast contributions they have made to China’s development for several decades now, the consequences can be devastating: riots in the streets, businesses vandalised, innocent civilians targeted, assaulted.

    If a professional journalist were to publish groundless accusations, at the very least they would be reprimanded by their employer. Even with a freelance journalist this might affect their reputation and thus future employment prospects. But with “citizen journalists”, there are unlikely to be any consequences whatsoever for their actions (provided they aren’t foolish enough to slander the Party or reveal their own identity).

    One might argue about freedom of speech and so on and so forth, but it’s dubious as to whether China operates in quite the same way as the US or most other developed nations. Especially where slander/libel is concerned. I do not mean to insult the Chinese people or their legal and education systems, but it is also presumably true that the average citizen is less educated and more susceptible to slander campaigns and propaganda. Especially as these can also be – and some have undoubtedly been – state-orchestrated. The foolish belief that everyone is acting for the greater good, that all individuals portrayed as villians in the media must be precisely that, the absence of the common sense to take every story with a grain of salt, is what concerns me most. And this most definitely applies to more than just China.

    I’m afraid I don’t know the correlation between education and internet access/usage in China, but presumably anyone in a major city is able to access the internet through internet cafes. Regardless of whether the victim/perpetrator is innocent or guilty, the damage to their reputation will have been done by the time the truth comes out. If it ever does. The further the story spreads the greater coverage it receives, and the greater the havoc it wreaks. It comes down to whether the public believe everything they read, or even care whether what they are reading is true.

    These “human flesh search engine[s]” are also concerning. One might argue that the function they serve is little different to that of a private detective, except that, again, they cannot be easily caught or reprimanded for their actions. One might even go so far as to say that they have nothing to lose. I certainly do not want to be on the receiving end of one of those, I tell you.

  2. Armando Montelongo

    I don’t agree with your thesis that online scrutiny is the pariah you make it out to be. There may be some isolated negative incidents but I am a firm believer that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The more things are brought out in the open the less likely negative activity will continue.