Changing the Story: Media Influence and the Chinese Credit System.

The path information takes to get from the source to the recipient is a fascinating, often troubling journey. Even reduced to the simplest possible forms of communication, philosophers,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 examines one of the most complex information systems in existence. Dating back to the debates between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey in the 1920s, innumerable scholars have inquired about the processes by which news is created, transmitted, and used.

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Over the past couple of weeks, I have attempted to track how news evolves in the modern media landscape, specifically in the case of 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. The system is said by some to be overtly Orwellian, an expansive use of Big Data (including social network and online shopping data) to “score” the public that will lead to suppression and societal manipulation. Others in the media have portrayed it as a badly needed response to issues of corporate and personal trustworthiness in China, a problem magnified by the country’s lack of a traditional credit system. Whether either of these depictions is accurate is not my concern here. While this is a fascinating policy issue, there is not yet sufficient information on how the system will eventually be implemented to identify problems and promise with certainty (I leave interested readers with my bibliography to decide for themselves). What is interesting, to me, is how and why these two different depictions emerged, and what that meta-narrative might tell us at about media in general.

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The first mention I found of the Chinese Social Credit System was in 2011. The Chinese press described the system as a nationwide effort to “ensure sound and healthy social and economic development” by the government, which would establish credit rating agencies and promote use of credit products [1]. However there was little mention of it in the Western press until 2014. In April of that year, Rogier Creemers, an Oxford professor specializing in Chinese media and policy, published a translation of State Council Notice from the Chinese Government on his now widely-cited blog [2]. The statement itself is long, vague, and difficult to read, both because of its length and questionable grammar.

Despite the tedium of the official document, some popular media coverage followed Creemers’ blog post  [3] [4]. At this point, the prevailing narrative in Western and Chinese media outlets alike emphasized the importance of the CSC to the Chinese economy, despite its problems. Then , in October 2015, Privacy Online News, an online privacy blog written by Swedish Pirate Party Founder Rick Falkvinge, posted a scathing critique of the system comparing it to those used by the Cold War Soviet KGB and post-WWII East German Stasi surveillance and manipulation methods [5]. This piece was cited as a main source in another critique two days later, this one by the much more visible Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union [6]. Over the next month numerous stories from  major  publications began to appear in quick succession.

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Following Creemers’ post there were vocal critiques of the Chinese credit system. However, before the Falkvinge and Stanley critiques most coverage was 1) considerably less critical of the program and 2) published in periodicals outside of the mainstream press [7] [8] [9] [10].

china credit score1

This distinct shift in tone led me to conduct two informal Google searches, both with the search query “China Social Credit System,” one with parameters set from January to September of this year, and one from October to present. My results seemed to confirm my second point: the most recognizable publications covering the story before October were Bloomberg Businessweek [7] and the International Business Times [9], 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.  Looking from October to Today, I encountered articles from CNN, the BBC, The New Yorker, and CBS News.

To my first point, there does seem to be a distinct change in tone following Stanley’s blog. There are certainly early exceptions to this generalization (this video, for example), 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 parts of the plan more widely covered in the Chinese media: namely 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), and providing a system that promotes corporate responsibility of Chinese businesses moving into a global market [9] [11]. These two areas of development would help citizens start businesses and participate in the global economy as well as account for the Chinese economy’s loss of $96 billion dollars a year to “dishonest behaviors” [12] [13].

The headlines after 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 exceptions: TechInAsia 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 [14]. Silverman in the New Republic, took a different approach, drawing somewhat shocking comparisons to American systems that, although less centralized than the planned Chinese system, are already in place and have an impact whether we know it or not  [15].

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Beyond simply encouraging coverage, did the Stanley and Falkvinge critiques dramatically influence the media’s tone of coverage? 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? The role of “fear” in the news media has become a subset of the literature – perhaps Stanley’s piece put the system in terms that fit with that paradigm of news coverage [16][17]. It could also be an example of how much influence political and intellectual elites have with the media, an idea that has long been embedded in the study of media and politics [18][19][20].

I would invite a willing content analyst to pursue this as a case study of media sentiment. However, I present this initial inquiry with two goals in mind: first, to encourage further research on the media’s coverage of this and other controversial policy issues. Second, these findings should serve as a warning for those interested in studying the policy itself.  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 insights 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 .

 


Works Cited

[1]“China to Set up Social Credit System.” China.org.cn 20 Oct. 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

[2] Creemers, Rogier. “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020).” China Copyright and Media. N.p., 25 Apr. 2015. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

[3] “China Rates Its Own Citizens – Including Online Behaviour | Buitenland.” De Volkskrant 25 Apr. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

[4] FlorCruz, Michelle. “China To Use Big Data To Rate Citizens In New ‘Social Credit System.’” International Business Times. N.p., 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

[5] Falkvinge, Rick. “In China, Your Credit Score Is Now Affected By Your Political Opinions – And Your Friends’ Political Opinions.” Privacy Online News. N.p., 3 Oct. 2015. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

[6] Stanley, Jay. “China’s Nightmarish Citizen Scores Are a Warning For Americans.” American Civil Liberties Union. N.p., 5 Oct. 2015. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

[7] Einhorn, Bruce. “Credit Scores Come to Debt-Leery Chinese.” Bloomberg Businessweek 2 July 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

[8] Macauley, Richard. “China Wants to Use Social Data to Rank Its Citizens—and Maybe Even Get Them to Trust Each Other.” Quartz. N.p., 6 May 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

[9] Celia. “China ‘Social Credit’: Beijing Sets up Huge System.” BBC News. N.p., 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

[10] Schiller, Ben. “China Is Building The Mother Of All Reputation Systems To Monitor Citizen Behavior.” Co.Exist. N.p., 16 Sept. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

[11] Hua, Chai. “Mainland Credit-Rating Network Takes ShapeBusiness – China Daily Asia.” ChinaDailyAsia. N.p., 9 June 2015. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

[12] Fan, Jiayang. “How China Wants to Rate Its Citizens.” The New Yorker 3 Nov. 2015. The New Yorker. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

[13] Lan, Lan. “China’s Social Credit System Gains Momentum.” China Daily 22 Aug. 2014. Web.

[14] Custer, C. “China’s ‘citizen Scores’ Credit System Isn’t as Orwellian as the ACLU Thinks…yet.” Tech in Asia. N.p., 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

[15] Silverman, Jacob. “China’s Troubling New Social Credit System—And Ours.” The New Republic 29 Oct. 2015. The New Republic. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

[16] Altheide, David L. Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis. Transaction Publishers, 2002. Print.

[17] Altheide, David L., and R. Sam Michalowski. “Fear in the News.” Sociological Quarterly 40.3 (1999): 475–503. Wiley Online Library. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

[18] Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Random House, 2010. Print.

[19] Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. Harcourt, Brace, 1922. Print.

[20] Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.