China launches platform to stamp out 'online rumors'

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has launched a platform, which includes a mobile app, that lets the public report “online rumors” and even uses artificial intelligence to identify reports that are false, as Beijing cracks down on what it views as socially destabilizing content.

Computer code is seen on a screen above a Chinese flag in this July 12, 2017 illustration photo. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration

The platform, launched on Wednesday, comes as Beijing steps up efforts to police the internet, especially social media used by people to discuss politics and other sensitive subjects, despite stringent censorship.

Besides a website, the platform Piyao - which means “refuting rumors” - also has a mobile app and social media accounts with social media giants Weibo and WeChat.

Via those channels, Piyao will broadcast “real” news, sourcing reports from state-owned media, party-controlled local newspapers, and various government agencies.

“Rumours violate individual rights; rumours create social panic; rumours cause fluctuations in the stock markets; rumours impact normal business operations; rumours blatantly attack revolutionary martyrs,” Piyao said in a promotional video of the launch on its website.

Official data show internet regulators received 6.7 million reports of illegal and false information in July, with most of the cases coming from Sina that owns Weibo, Tencent which owns Wechat, Baidu, and Alibaba.

Chinese laws dictate that rumor-mongers could be charged with defamation, and they face up to seven years in prison. Online posts that contain rumors visited by 5,000 internet users or are reposted more than 500 times could also incur jail sentences.

Hosted by the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission in affiliation with the official Xinhua news agency, Piyao has integrated over 40 local rumor-refuting platforms and uses artificial intelligence to identify rumors.

The platform operates under the guidance of 27 government departments, including the Central Party School, which trains rising officials, and powerful planning body the National Development and Reform Commission.

Chinese media regularly reports on - and refutes - popular rumors that circulate online, though generally only mentions topics involving issues like corrupt local officials or health scares, rather than anything more salacious about senior leaders.

President Xi Jinping said last year that China will build a “clean and clear” internet space.

Reporting by Stella Qiu and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Michael Perry