Lincoln Davidson is a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow him on Twitter @.
As Chinese authorities take aim, yet again, at online rumors, a defamation lawsuit brought by KFC is making headlines in China. While the case appears to be pretty clear-cut, by bringing its suit, KFC is inadvertently supporting the CCP’s efforts to quash rumors and limit free speech online.
On June 1, KFC initiated a lawsuit against ten accounts on WeChat, a Chinese mobile app similar to WhatsApp. According to the president of KFC China, the accounts claim that KFC had biologically engineered mutant chickens with eight legs and six wings. KFC is suing the account owners for combined damages of 3.5 million RMB (about $560,000 USD), although the court is unlikely to fully compensate KFC if it rules in its favor. KFC’s lawsuit is only the latest in a series of cases brought by Chinese food producers for defamation online. Some of the cases have even been brought against companies that are operating as literal rumor mills, posting advertisements for products or denigrating competitors’ products on WeChat accounts for a few hundred yuan (about $50 USD).
Discussing the KFC case, Zhang Limei, a commentator in Legal Daily, highlights the damage that rumors can do to public trust in businesses. When a rumor’s reach is particularly widespread, she argues it can lead to “social panic.” Because rumors are “easy to make, but hard to break,” she notes the public needs to be taught to think twice about online information. However, as rumors have a tendency to evolve more quickly than any education effort, Zhang asserts that it is in the public interest for the government to limit online expression.
Providers of Internet platforms have long played an important role in the CCP’s approach to online discourse shaping. Much of the minutiae of censorship has been delegated to platform operators, who must employ censors tasked with reviewing online posts and deleting objectionable content. When authorities feel they aren’t doing a good enough job, operators are forced to adopt new measures to catch more posts.
Zhang expects WeChat to play a similar role in managing online rumors, but finds that the app’s creator, Tencent, is swamped with too many reports to process. While Tencent’s system automatically intercepts around two million rumors daily, some inevitably slip through. (WeChat has about 550 million active users, nearly twice that of Twitter.) Confronting such a large volume of rumors requires, in Zhang’s view, that some of the responsibility for censorship must be further decentralized: companies who are the target of rumors should use the legal system to hit back at rumormongers:
“If there were more firms that were willing, like KFC, to step out and take up the weapon of the law to defend their rights […] they would certainly be able to restrain malicious, and often paid, manipulation of rumors. Regardless of the case’s decision, KFC’s lawsuit against the ‘six-winged mutant chicken’ WeChat accounts should become an example for companies and the public of how to vigorously defend oneself from online rumors. […] The best way to refute rumors is to rely on the law and allow the courts to lay out a decision and discipline the rumormongers.”
In other words, companies and individuals must be active in reporting online rumors. This is a point that China’s Internet regulators have stressed over the last few months. In a recent speech, Lu Wei, the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, argued that a central cybersecurity challenge for China is creating a “civilized” Internet that is “purified” of “harmful information.” To achieve this, he emphasized getting all of Chinese society involved in being “good netizens” (including, presumably, private enterprises).
While KFC needs to protect its product and reputation, its approach to the WeChat rumors risks reinforcing the government’s narrative of the need for censorship in at least two ways. First, the company has characterized Chinese citizens as ignorant and easily misled, implicitly endorsing the Chinese government’s tightening of online discourse. In a speech in May, President of KFC China Qu Cuirong said that because consumers’ knowledge can’t increase at the same rate as rumors are produced, “if things keep going this way, our consumers will become confused. They won’t know what they can eat.”
Second, and perhaps more troubling, the greater use of the “weapon of the law” by businesses to stamp out online “rumors” could easily lead individuals to avoid making public statements of any kind online. It’s safe to say that an overly-broad definition of "harmful rumors" would have a dampening effect on discourse on WeChat because that’s exactly what happened on Weibo after the Chinese government created legislation making it possible to, in the words of one blogger, "hate-retweet someone into jail."
Companies have good reason to be concerned about rumors and the impact they can have on business. But as the Chinese media unleashes a barrage on online rumors, KFC and others who might follow it risk tacitly promoting the CCP’s vision for the Internet—a vision that is anything but free and open.