China’s Sina Weibo bans users for spreading ‘false rumours’

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China’s largest microblogging service has contacted millions of its users warning them to ignore any false reports spread over the network. The move is being viewed by some as a sign of growing unease over the rise of social networking sites in the country.

Sina sent at least two messages to its Weibo (pronounced Wei-bohr) users refuting rumours which had spread through the network. One such rumour stated that the suspected murderer of a 19 year old woman had been released on bail because of his father’s connections.

The social network said the bloggers who had posted the false reports would have their accounts suspended for a month. They would also be unable to send messages or be followed in that period.

The messages followed a visit by a top communist party official to the offices of Sina and Chinese video streaming service Youku. The official urged internet companies to stop the spread of “false and harmful information”, according to the Beijing Daily.

During the visit to Sina and Youku, Beijing’s Communist Party chief Liu Qi said internet companies should “ensure the authenticity of information… to create a healthy online media atmosphere”
China has constantly sought to exert control over the content its 485-million internet users can access, blocking content it deems politically sensitive.

This vast censorship system has become known in the West as “The Great Firewall“.

Recently, however, cracks have begun to emerge in the system.

Chinese social network users are increasingly turning to platforms like Sina’s Weibo to vent their anger over government corruption, scandals and disasters. The platform allows for the rapid spread of information in a country where the media is tightly controlled by the communist authorities.

In July, Sina’s Weibo users sent millions of messages criticising the government’s response to a deadly train crash which killed more than 40 people. The venting of public anger has been cited as a critical factor in the authorities halting the expansion of the country’s high-speed rail programme.

The scale of the response saw various media outlets venturing to join in the criticism of the government. Even Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily urged the government to engage more with the public through the weibos.

Sina Weibo has attracted more than 200-million users in the two years it has been in existence, around the same as its main Western rival Twitter. The platform is different to many of China’s social networks which are frequently little more than facsimile copies of Western sites and has often been ahead of Twitter in adding features like automatic link shortening. –AFP with additional reporting by staff reporter.

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