China Net rumours And Food Safety: Speech vs. Commerce

Governments around the world still haven’t quite figured out what to do with the Internet when it comes to rumour mongering. Even in countries like the U.S., whose constitution and legal traditions aggressively protect speech, there have been quite a few difficult cases in recent years stemming from online posts, comments, and messages. The causes of action can cover a lot of territory, including defamation, trade secret theft, and intentional harassment.

In China, the legal issues are even more difficult to deal with because of the government’s tight rein on online speech, enforcement of which has become rather onerous in this age of social media. But aside from political speech, another area that has led to a great deal of uncertainty is speech that effects commercial activities.

An article in the Global Times takes this topic on as it relates to food scandals. The main point is not controversial:

Public trust in the food industry is at rock bottom, and this should be blamed on a lack of supervision but also on the media. When seeking to supervise society, media’s broad strokes can unfairly tar honest businesses.

The only thing to add to that, of course, is that primary blame should be on the businesses that sold unsafe food in the first place. A lax regulatory environment should be called out as well, but the government’s culpability is secondary.

And yes, to the extent that the media (leave aside what “media” refers to for the moment) has facilitated the spreading of unsubstantiated rumours that have hurt honest businesses, then they deserve a measure of the blame as well.

But this is all academic. Saying that the media should get its act together and stop spreading rumours is one thing. Figuring out how to implement that policy is another matter.

There are several difficulties inherent in designing such a system. Consider the following questions:

1. Who is the media?

It’s one thing for major newspapers or television networks to ensure that reporters do some research or confirm facts with reputable sources prior to publishing food safety stories. But that only represents a fraction of what constitute’s today’s “media,” which includes among other things a plethora of online content sources. Even if standards can be formulated for the media in its role as industry watchdog, is it fair or even possible to apply them to bloggers, for example, who have limited time and resources?

2. What about social media?

Assuming we have these journalistic standards, these would only work for established media organisations that had some measure of control over content. As the government has already discovered, social media presents a challenge when it comes to content control.

The author of the Global Times piece might be expecting too much in this regard:

Despite being key to everyday life, the food safety code is full of technical details, often beyond the understanding of the general public.

Media outlets need to take a scientific approach in analysing right and wrong here.

Even if we place responsibility for content with the online platform operator (e.g. Sina, with respect to its Twitter-ish Weibo service), as is the case when it comes to banned political speech and pornography, does the operator have the expertise to take a “scientific approach” in evaluating statements made about food safety? Should Sina be forced to hire food safety experts to monitor content?

3. Isn’t there a danger of a chilling effect?

This again goes to the proper balance. Too little attention given to unsubstantiated rumours, one could argue, may result in unfair competition and harm to otherwise honest businesses. We have already seen illicit online marketing techniques being used by companies to besmirch the reputation of competitors.

On the other hand, too much regulation of such content might not only cut down on rumours but also make things more difficult for genuine whistle blowers, who have valuable information that can be used by government to protect consumers.

I don’t see an easy answer to this policy dilemma. However, of the two possible approaches, I would err on the side of free speech and the dissemination of commercial information to the public.

In the long term, the problem is not unsubstantiated rumours, but rather the weight given them by the public. And of course the reason why these statements are taken seriously is a lack of faith in the regulatory environment, a paucity of reliable product safety information, and a long list of horror stories about unscrupulous commercial activity.

Once the regulators get a grip on industry practice and food scandals become less common, the public will stop acting on wild rumours.

Visit China Hearsay for the latest unsubstantiated wild rumours, and maybe some China law, business and politics commentary as well. Also look for me on Google+ and Twitter.