A Reminder That The Internet Isn’t Perfect

The internet is often touted, and rightly so, as an independent source of information that can serve as a watchdog and politically liberalizing force in China. But a recent story, reported on ESWN, shows that the power of bloggers to mobilize popular sentiment against government agents isn’t always the voice of reasoned righteousness that might be hoped.

The basic story is about a traffic death. If you read the widely spread blog post on Sina and Baidu, two major internet sites, you would have read that a party boss hit and killed a man riding a scooter. When his family went to ask for compensation the police protected the boss and beat unconscious, not only a citizen who tried to stand up for the family, but the deceased man’s aged father as well. The blog post concludes, “Looking at the police that I once respected, I finally realized that we live in a cruel society.”

That’s a pretty ugly picture of police brutality and corruption, the exposure of which is exactly the positive role the internet can have in bringing change to China. But, reading further through follow-up news stories on ESWN, it appears that the blog post is almost completely inaccurate.

None of the news reports mention anything about a party boss. It appears that the man was hit by a bus, which certainly wouldn’t be driven by a party leader. In the news reports, the family’s blocked attempts to get compensation also turn out to be less impassioned pleas and more harassment. Apparently, some of the family members abducted the insurance representative from the bus company who came to discuss compensation, took him to a funeral home, and made him kowtow at the dead man’s casket. And the scene of police brutality? It turns out to be the police coming to the aid of the bus company representative and his wife.

Of course the facts can get confused, and there is certainly potential for the authorities to have massaged the truth as presented in the news media, but the blog post is so far from the basic gist of the story that it’s hard to think of it as anything but fantasy. It seems like a case of hearsay and rumors made to fit the narrative of police brutality and government corruption—someone seeing what they wanted, intentionally or not, to see.

Granted, the impact of this particular blog post is decidedly small. It’s a minor local story and, though it was posted on some major national blog portals, it is just one post. Still, for those clicking through the internet with their skepticism perhaps moderated by a belief in the watchdog power of the blogosphere, this false account of government malfeasance became part of the cacophony of information that feeds their world view.

Certainly, the Chinese authorities are no angels, and likely guilty in many unreported cases, but blogs also have their shortcomings. In this case it was the internet, not the government, with an accountability problem.

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