China Cracks Down on Viral Web Posts

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Imaginechina / AP

The icon of mobile messaging app Weixin, or WeChat, of Tencent, center, is seen on the screen of an Apple iPhone smartphone in Shanghai, China, 5 April 2013.

Beware of making too many friends—in China, it could land you in prison. Responding to the growing use of social media as a platform to air grievances and marshal support for social justice causes in the country, Beijing issued new rules Monday to criminalize posts considered “libelous” that go viral, The Associated Press reports.

Authorities in China say posts to social media sites that amount to what the state calls “online rumors” can land the person who posted them in prison for up to three years, if the status update, comment, tweet, etc., is reposted 500 or more times or viewed by more than 5,000 internet users.  State news agencies have said the measure is designed to protect users from blackmail and defamation, and to prevent people from “disrupting the social order and triggering unrest,” the AP reports.

Critics charge that the new rules are nothing more than further curbs on the freedom of speech in the country. According to the AP, police in China have already rounded up hundreds of web users charged with spreading “online rumors,” including at least one journalist who had been critical of a government official and another man detained for criticizing a group of “revolutionary martyrs.”

“This sets the standards for criminal prosecution at the lowest since the new China was founded (in 1949),” a law professor in Shanghai told the AP.

[The Associated Press]