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Multiple channels to strengthen we-media governance

LIU WENSHUAI | 2018-05-03
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


 

Recent years have witnessed an explosion of mobile live video streaming apps and platforms. Anyone who has a phone could become a host and interact with viewers through live streaming on a range of topics, such as gaming, sports, farming and adventures.


 

Having embraced a new era of media communication, China is home to the largest group of we-media users in the world. However, as the old communication pattern breaks down, the new order has yet to kick in, breeding a series of social and internet issues. In his report to the 19th CPC National Congress, Xi Jinping called for more and better online content and a system for integrated internet management to ensure a clean cyberspace.


The Cyber Security Law, which came into effect in June 2017, along with other regulations, signals that China is working to establish a system of rules and regulation to achieve the rule of law in the cyberspace. Due to the dispersed and complex pool of users in we-media communication, the construction of an internet governance system is becoming more urgent and important.

 

Problems of we-media
According to the Tencent financial report in the third quarter of 2017, WeChat and its international edition registered a combined total of about 980 million monthly active users. Monthly active official accounts numbered 3.5 million while monthly active followers of official accounts totaled 797 million. Similarly, by the end of September 2017, Weibo had amassed 376 million monthly active users, with 165 million daily active users. In addition, other Chinese internet giants, such as Baidu, Sohu, 360, Netease, Phoenix and Alibaba, have also launched we-media platforms.


However, problems caused by the rapid expansion of we-media in our country are increasingly prominent. First of all, we-media has posed great challenges to mainstream public opinion by undermining the discourse power of traditional media. At the same time, there are cyber-security threats created by the openness of we-media platforms as well as the complexity of actors in the arena, commercial motives, technological limitations and other factors.


Next, we-media platforms are a hotbed for privacy invasion, rumors, copyright infringement, vulgarity and violence. The cost of addressing these issues exceeds existing government management resources.


Finally, the rapid development of the internet has outpaced the development of media literacy in the Chinese public. Internet users and the we-media industry are often confused in the face of complex online debates and sometimes find themselves bamboozled by fake information or somewhat lost in the pursuit of truth, requiring the instruction of detailed management rules for new media as soon as possible.


In essence, we-media communication is a negation of mass communication in the philosophical sense, because it has blurred the boundary of interpersonal communication, group communication, mass communication and mass self-communication. It can be said that we-media is by far the most complex form of communication in human history.


From the perspective of social function, we-media is no longer just a medium, but an internet “complex” that involves diverse players. The subject of we-media can be any person, enterprise or organization, even a mix of multiple identities.


As a result, the old management mindset that applied to traditional media in the past is unable to cope with the challenges from new media. In practice, China’s research and legislation has lagged behind the development of we-media. To this end, media governance must be people-oriented, systematic, striving to establish a comprehensive management system that conforms to China’s national conditions and the future development of media.

 

We-media governance on four levels
In short, the key of media governance could be stated as follow: the relationship between freedom of speech and public opinion supervision or the balance of individual rights and security, the establishment of digital credibility system, and the improvement of media literary. To address these problems, we must encourage the government, platforms, society and individuals to form a multi-dimensional system of governance.


To start with, the current management of we-media is mainly based on regulatory documents, and more often than not, these regulations are published by different departments. For example, law and regulations that apply to copyright on the internet are scattered in criminal law, civil law, copyright law and other relevant laws. Also, legislative language is relatively vague and lacks practical guidance.


In this light, media supervision should strengthen legislation and form a comprehensive legal system. We-media could be regarded as an independent concept of legislation to formulate targeted regulation standards, clearly define related legal terms, and clarify government, platform, individual rights and responsibilities. At the same time, it is necessary to lay down the law for personal information protection as soon as possible to protect the privacy of citizens and better promote the real-name system.


On the platform level, the current practice of rule by regulations should be replaced by rule of law. A glance at regulations on we-media platform in recent years would find that documents such as “10 rules for WeChat,” “10 rules for online nicknames,” and “new rules for group talks” are all administrative rules and regulations. Though regulatory efforts have been enhanced over the years, the lack of legal guidance often creates problems in determining the responsibility of individuals and platforms in real-life scenarios.


We-media platforms should also install the right set of values and sense of responsibility. In 2016, the death of a 21-year-old cancer patient sparked controversy on Chinese social media. Internet users were angered about Baidu’s practice of allowing medical institutions to pay to be prominently featured in their search results. In 2017, both Toutiao and Weibo were caught spreading pornography. To cite Google’s informal slogan “Don’t be evil,” Chinese internet firms need to strengthen their values.


In the meantime, the production of we-media content can be said to be the outcome of “cooperation” among individuals and platforms. Therefore, the platform should also take the responsibility to establish a new order and norms, rather than fixating on traffic only. At present, various we-media platforms still rely on automatic keyword search and reports of internet users to carry out content supervision. However, little or nothing has been done for images and short videos in violations of law and regulations.


Besides, domestic we-media platforms have yet to come up with effective measures to prevent, screen and dispose of fake information. Online platforms thus should take on the responsibility of screening online information and guiding public opinion, through the investment of technology, manpower and material resources to establish a new mechanism of information flow.


Thirdly, in internet governance system, society as a third party has a pivotal role to play in compensating for “government failure” and “market failure.”


First of all, we should build a self-cleaning culture of the whole society. We should encourage internet users to be skeptical about online information. As the industry enters a we-media era, we must remain vigilant while immersed in the “carnival of communication.” It is also necessary to establish the self-purification mechanism of media communication that allows free and thorough discussion of hot social issues by a vast number of internet users, so false information could be quickly exposed and corrected while the truth eventually surfaces. It is worth noting that such a mechanism needs to rely on full government information disclosure. Rumors can only find a market in the absence of authoritative information.


At the same time, the public mostly has faith in the credibility of mass media, so in the network self-purification process, mass media must undertake the task of exploring the truth and remember that irresponsible information will only make things worse.


It is also advisable to set up national and regional internet industry self-regulatory organization as it is widely carried out in Western countries. The government could delegate regulatory power to these self-discipline bodies to urge the network service providers to assume the legal obligations and social responsibilities. For example, Sina Weibo has worked with the Ministry of Public Security to launch a “national anti-rumor platform.” Similarly, Tencent news launched a rumor verification platform that offers a variety of verified information concerning public interest.


Finally, there is no absolute “we” media in the world. The advancement of technology makes we-media possible, but once public dissemination of information occurs, it holds sway over public space, issues and order. Therefore, individual behavior on the internet should be restricted in the framework of public ethics, law and regulations.


The first is legal ethics. Each we-media user is required to know the rules of publication and various laws related to we-media. The freedom of speech in today’s world needs each citizen to respect and stick to the bottom line, making due contributions to improve the network environment.


The second is media literacy. Individuals should improve “network intelligence” to reject fake, negative and sensational information and takes the initiative to spread positive energy. On the other hand, government should strengthen the media literacy education of citizens. At present, the United States, Canada and other Western countries has made media literacy a lifelong education. In contrast, China lags behind and has a long way to go in this regard.

 

Liu Wenshuai is from the Institute of Journalism and Communication Studies at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences. 

(edited by YANG XUE)