The following was published in an edited format as a blog for gnovis, an academic journal produced by Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology program.
The path information takes to get from the source to the recipient is a fascinating, troubling journey. Even reduced to the simplest possible forms of communication, philosophers and linguists and physicists have debated what actually happens when an idea passes from one person to another. The problem is that information gets battered around, subjected to noise, manipulated, and even lost completely.
This problem is exponentially exaggerated as a system gets more complex. The study of politics, the press, and the public, is the study of one of the most complex information systems in existence. Dating at least back to the debates between Walter Lippman and John Dewey in the 1920s, innumerable scholars have inquired about the processes by which news is created, transmitted, and used.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve undertaken a journey through the depths of the internet to try and track how news evolves in the modern media landscape, specifically a developing story about the Chinese Social Credit system, a massively complex and extremely controversial new economic system being slowly rolled out by the Chinese government. My work on this blog actually began with hopes of explaining the system and its critiques, but I will mostly leave that effort to my bibliography. The story I became more interested in was that of how this system was portrayed in the news media over the last two years.
Although China had been developing ideas around a credit system since the 2000s, even expanding the notions of what should contribute to a credit score before 2009 (pg 53 Zhang and Smyth 2009), there was little mention of it in the Western Press until 2014, three years after the first mention I found of the system in the Chinese press (china.org.cn 2011). It was April of 2014 when Rogier Creemers, an Oxford professor specializing in Chinese media and policy, published a State Council Notice outlining the plan on his now widely-cited blog (Creemers 2014).
Some coverage followed Creemers’ blog post (De Volkstant 2015, FlorCruz 2015), but then, in October, Privacy Online News, an online privacy blog written by Swedish Pirate Party Founder Rick Falkvinge, posted a scathing critique of the system (Falkvinge 2015). This piece was cited as a main source in another critique, this one by the much more visible Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union (Stanley 2015). Then over the next month there were stories in numerous major publications, from the New Yorker (Fan 2015) to the Atlantic (Pasquale 2015) to the BBC (Hatton 2015) (For those interested in the system itself, these three articles, along with De Volkstrant article, seemed to have the most information).
My initial method was just to follow breadcrumbs, finding an article and then tracking down its sources and so on, trying to find the root of the information. But then I started to notice a pattern. Ever since the first De Volkstrant article there had been vocal critiques, including Creemers himself and a spokesperson from Human Rights Watch, using words like “Orwellian” (whatever that precisely means) to describe the system. However, before October, the articles I found were A. considerably less critical of the program and B. more often than not published in periodicals outside of the everyday, mainstream press (Einhorn 2015, Macauley 2015, Hsu 2015, Schiller 2015).
Once I noticed this distinct shift in tone, I did two Google searches, both with the search query “China Social Credit System,” one from January to September of this year, and one from October to present: before and after the Falkvinge/Stanley critiques. Using the first two pages of Google results seemed to confirm my second point: the most recognizable publications covering the story before October were Bloomberg Businesseek (Einhorn 2015) and the International Business Times (Hsu 2015), which are admittedly no small potatoes but are hardly the most widely read news sources in America. There are a couple of articles from Canada and Australia that mention the system but don’t go into much detail, and then there a couple posts from technology blogs. Post-Stanley’s article, the same search gets articles from CNN, the BBC, The New Yorker, and CBS News, plus a continuing smatter of blog commentary.
To my first point, there does seem to be a distinct change in tone following Stanley’s blog in October. There are certainly exceptions to this generalization: this video is about as critical as it gets. But the articles from the biggest news outlets covering the story before October are primarily focused on the credit system as a business issue; the Bloomberg article’s headline (“Credit Scores Come to Debt-Leery Chinese”) sounds almost, gasp, positive. These articles emphasize the parts of the plan more widely covered in the Chinese media: getting some form of credit to the large proportion of Chinese citizens who currently don’t have any (Hatton 2015 cites a source saying only 320 million Chinese citizens – out of 1.357 billion – have a traditional credit history) so that they can start businesses and participate in the global economy, and providing a system that promotes corporate responsibility of Chinese businesses moving into a global market (Chinese sources: Xinhuanet 2014, Hua 2015; Western: Hsu 2015). These two areas of development would help account for the Chinese economy’s loss of $96 billion dollars a year to “dishonest behaviors” (Xinhuanet 2014; that figure also used in China Daily 2014 and Fan 2015).
Several of the stories from October and beyond do mention this part of the story, but they generally don’t lead with it. The headlines in October paint a darker picture, using words like “Nightmarish,” “Chilling,” “Troubling,” “Scary,” and of course “Orwellian.” The articles that I surveyed focused on the social and commercial data collection programs being tested by Chinese companies currently, the civil liberty implications, and the question of whether something like this could happen in the U.S. Again, there are, of course exceptions: TechInAsia, a blog about Tech… in Asia… featured a measured blog checking some of the facts and encouraging a less vitriolic response, while not denying the most troubling aspects of the program (Custer 2015). Silverman (2015) in the New Republic took a different tack, drawing somewhat shocking comparisons to American systems that, although less centralized than the planned Chinese system, are already in place and having an impact whether we know it or not (Duhigg 2009 and Pasquale 2015 are also interesting here).
The ACLU is a huge, influential organization, so we expect that a blog post from one of their analysts could spark some media attention. But I suggest that we should at least take notice when a major economic development in the world’s second biggest economy becomes a source of front-page news almost overnight.
Beyond simply encouraging coverage, did the Stanley/Falkvinge critiques dramatically influence the media’s tone of coverage? One the of the most highly cited and highly critiqued quotes was published in February (Xiaoxiao 2015), so the argument that the more sinister details just hadn’t come to light until October is debunked. The earliest articles I found from April of this year had some criticisms (De Volkstrant 2015 and FlorCruz 2015), but still the mainstream media didn’t seem to pick up on that tone until six months later.
What were the primary factors that seem to cause such a distinct change in the publications covering this story and the tone with which it was described? I have several ideas that could be explored further. The role of “fear” in the news media has become a subset of the literature (Altheide and Michalowski 1999, Altheide 2002). Perhaps Stanley’s piece put the system in terms that fit with that paradigm of news coverage. It could also be an example of how much influence political and intellectual elites have with the media, an idea that has long been influential in the study of media and politics (Lippman 1920, Mills 1999 (reprint of 1956), Herman and Chomsky 2010 (reprint of 1988)).
At this point, after only researching this issue for a few weeks, I am content presenting the facts as I have discovered them and leaving interpretation open to debate. There are shortcomings in the data presented that could also be corrected. I am depending on Google’s search algorithm to give me a sense of the media tenor over a relatively long period, and am limited in my ability to read and assess the amount of coverage this system has recently received. My conclusions should be treated with critical eye. I would invite a willing content analyst to pursue this issue and correct my errors. A social network map linking sources and citations may illuminate some of this progression as well. I have tried to leave a detailed trail of my findings in my bibliography so that my steps might be re-traced.
However, I present these ideas in spite of their faults for two reasons: first, to encourage further research on the media’s coverage of this system, whether it confirms or refutes my initial findings; and second, to serve as a warning for those interested in the Chinese Credit System, whether for academic or personal reasons. The Chinese Social Credit System is a massive undertaking that is still only in the test phases, and frankly many of the details of how it will eventually be implemented are not known. Many of the criticisms levied against it may be well-founded. But I believe that rigorous studies of this system and its development could provide fascinating incites in a number of areas, from research on Big Data applications (for better or worse) and the future of economics to culture and media studies .
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