A man has been arrested in China for "spreading panic" on mobile messaging app WeChat, according to state media. The arrest came just hours after new rules on instant messaging tools, with harsh penalties for those believed to be "spreading rumours" via such services.
The man was taken into custody on Thursday after he wrote on WeChat that three people carrying explosives had been shot dead by police outside a hospital in the eastern province of Jiangsu. When police investigated the claims, they found them to be untrue, and the man was taken into custody. He admitted spreading the false rumours, and said that he had done so in order to "gain attention and boost his online business as an e-commerce merchant".
The arrest comes as part of a broader state crackdown that has been taking place over the last few years, in which the Chinese government has tried to tighten controls over what people share on social media, including obscene material and false rumours.
WeChat is a mobile text and voice messaging communication service developed by Tencent in China, first released in January 2011, and is the largest standalone messaging app by monthly active users. It's even been gaining ground on rival services WhatsApp and Snapchat, reaching 355 million monthly users as of the end of last year.
Until now, WeChat was seen by users as a relatively safe refuge from government censorship, compared to more public platforms such as the Twitter-like Sina Weibo. That's because the messaging service is private, and not used to disseminate information as widely as public social networks.
However, that doesn't seem to have dissuaded the Chinese police from making the arrest.
A judicial interpretation issued by China's top court and prosecutor last year made it possible to charge people with defamation if information posted by them and deemed to be false is visited by 5,000 internet users or reposted more than 500 times. The result of a standard conviction for defamation is three years in prison.
"No country would consider the slander of other people as 'freedom of speech'," said Sun Jungong, a spokesperson for the court. He also cited the increasing problem of false terror alerts being spread via social media.Other victims of the rumour clampdown were Sina.com, which was put through disciplinary procedures, and Twitter-analogue Sina Weibo, which was closed for several days in 2012 so that all "rumours" could be deleted.
In the last two months, over 1,000 people have been arrested in China for crimes related to internet use.