Caught in the Web of rumour and innuendo

CHINA - A series of arrests of high-profile micro-bloggers has sounded warning bells for China's Internet commentators.

The arrest of Xue Manzi, a 60-year-old "celebrity" with more than 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, on charges of soliciting a prostitute has triggered a heated online discussion throughout the country.

The widespread attention has tarnished the positive image Xue has been building for several years.

The United States' national is an angel investor who provides financial backing for small startups and entrepreneurs. He is also an online opinion leader who has used his micro-blog to advocate a crackdown on child trafficking and promote free lunch projects for children in poor areas. Xue has also requested financial help to provide treatment for teenagers with leukaemia.

However, further investigations by the police suggest there is a darker side to Xue's character. In addition to soliciting prostitutes, he has also been accused of "group licentiousness" and is alleged to have frequently organised group sex parties. He told the police that he was addicted to group sex long before he arrived in China, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Ge Zhongming, a professor at the School of Philosophy and Social Development at Shandong University, said when micro-blog celebrities such as Xue fall, great damage is done to "society's systemic trust", as opposed to the interpersonal trust with which we are all familiar, and this can affect social psychology en masse.

V celebrities

"From a sociological perspective, these V celebrities (verified account users, obliged to submit personal information to the company that operates the micro-blog and whose avatars are accompanied by a V-shaped badge) are an access point to society. If they lose the trust of the public, whether by disseminating rumours or through a promiscuous personal life, social credibility as a whole will suffer from the collateral damage brought about by their tarnished images," said Ge.

Three days before his arrest, Xue posted the following on his micro-blog: "While the Shanghai judges are striving to lose the label of 'whoremasters', Li Shuangjiang (a famous singer in China and dean of the Music Department of the People's Liberation Army Academy of Arts) is doing his best to earn his son the same label."

Xue was referring to two sex-related scandals that have captivated the public this summer. Earlier last month, four senior judges in Shanghai were caught on security video as they solicited prostitutes. They lost their jobs and now face expulsion from the Communist Party of China.

Meanwhile, Li Shuangjiang is attempting to save his son Li Tianyi, who is accused of participating in the gang rape of a woman at a Beijing hotel in February, by insinuating that the victim, a bar hostess, is a prostitute and had sex with his son of her own free will. Li Tianyi's trial began on Wednesday at Beijing Haidian District People's Court.

While the nation was still digesting those events, Xue was dragged into his own sex scandal, making him the third micro-blogging celebrity to fall recently.

His predecessors were Qin Zhihui, who wrote under the pseudonym Qinhuohuo, and Yang Xiuyu, aka Lierchaisi. They were arrested by Beijing police on charges of fabricating rumours and posting them online for financial gain. No trial date has yet been announced.

One of Qinhuohuo's most infamous rumours was the story of an Italian tourist who was killed in a rail accident two years ago and whose family received compensation of €30mil (S$50 million) from the Railway Ministry, a much higher amount than Chinese victims usually receive.

In an interview with China Central Television after his arrest, Yang Xiuyu explained that the driving force behind his fabrications and rumour-mongering was to make himself a hot online property as quickly as possible, thereby attracting advertisers to his micro-blog and increasing his influence.

Hong Daode, a professor of criminal law at China University of Political Science and Law, said some V celebrities are intentionally involved in spreading rumours and collaborate with companies that fabricate scandals, known in China as "water army" companies. These companies reward V celebrities who promote their products with handsome pay-outs.

"Companies reach out to micro-blog celebrities," said Jiazhuangzainiuyue, which means "Pretending to be in New York", who has 650,000 followers on Sina Weibo.

"PR companies used to contact me every day to post ads. They offered payment of 10,000 yuan (S$2,000) to 20,000 yuan, but I declined," he said.

"Many people believe that there is a company behind me, but they obviously don't know about micro-blogs and haven't read my posts very carefully. My micro-blog is very personal and in order to prevent speculation that I'm a marketing micro-blogger, I've rejected every offer made by PR companies. However, they kept approaching me, even after I posted a micro-blog stating that I would not do online ads," he said.

When asked for his reaction to the cases of Qinhuohuo and Lierchaisi, Jiazhuangzainiuyue said, "I completely abhor rumours on micro-blog sites, because they severely disturb the media environment, which is precious and also fragile."

He admitted he worked as a journalist for several years and is still employed in the media industry.

"So I know the importance of truth in news," he said.

Zhang Yun, a professor at Yunnan Normal University's School of Educational Sciences and Management, said social media networks provide people with the opportunity to access all the information posted online, thus it follows that most readers are likely to be influenced subconsciously.

Social media is exerting an increasing influence on the public, especially the younger generation who have grown up with widespread access to the Internet, according to Zhang.

Therefore, comments made by Internet celebrities will likely alter people's perceptions of how the authorities have coped with major incidents, such as manmade or natural disasters. Internet celebrities should avoid disseminating dubious "facts" or comments, he added.

"Like the media, Internet celebrities should be cautious and aware that not all online posts are true," said Zhang.

Virtual vs real world

Prominent figures with millions of micro-blog followers have an obligation to boycott unconfirmed rumours, because their influence in the virtual world will have an effect in the real world, he said.

Jiazhuangzainiuyue is always extremely cautious.

"As a result, before I forward news, I check on a search engine to discover the source and see if the story has been reported by authoritative media.

"If it comes from an online forum, I check the concrete time and place, if there are any corroborating photos, and if the story has been exaggerated. I then make a conclusion based on my research," he said.

The phrase "micro-blog celebrities" not only refers to established stars who are already famous and have millions of followers, such as pop and movie stars, but also those who have risen from anonymity by writing great jokes, reporting astounding news, passing impressive opinions or, in Qinhuohuo's case, concocting false rumours.

According to a report jointly published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Social Sciences Academic Press, rumour was the source of more than one-third of the 100 hottest micro-blog topics from January 2012 to January 2013.

Moreover, a recent survey conducted by Legal Daily suggested that 51.7 per cent of all Internet rumours in 2012 originated on micro-blogs, while message boards ranked second with 27. 6 per cent.

In March 2012, a series of online rumours that could have posed a threat to social stability resulted in a three-day shutdown of the comment functions on Tencent and Sina Weibo, sites which have a combined user base of more than 500 million, according to the report.

At present, just 200 "mega-V" celebrities have more than 10 million followers each, while 300 "super-Vs" have more 1 million, and 100,000 V celebs have 19,000 followers.

"As Edward W. Said wrote in his book Orientalism, "an intellectual is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible", but many V celebrities are unable to restrain themselves when faced with the type of acquisitive society that is China at the present time," said Ge.

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