China is Implementing a Social Rating System

I loved her, on the spot. There was something in her stance, her walk, her voice. Hesitantly, I approached and opened a light chat. There was an immediate connection, a feeling of rapport between us. Finally, I dared pop the question – “Do you want to meet again tomorrow?”

She went quiet for a second, then asked to see my social credit rating. I tried to keep my face still while I took out my smartphone and showed it to her.

She went quiet for more than a few seconds…

 

This system – a social credit rating – is in the process of being created and implemented today in China. If it works out well, it’s going to have an impact that will spread far beyond the People’s Republic, and may become part of our lives everywhere. Because, you see, this system might actually be a good idea – as long as we use it wisely.

What is a social credit rating? In a way, it’s similar to the ordinary credit history rating being used in America and other countries. Every person in America, for example, has a credit history that speaks volumes about their past behavior, how soon they return their loans, and how they handle their money. When one applies for a new loan, a mortgage or even for a new credit card, the banks and financial institutes take a good hard look at the inquirer’s credit history to decide whether or not they can be safe giving him that loan.

Up until today, only 320 million individuals in China had any kind of credit history, out of 800 million people registered in China’s central bank. Things are about to change, though, since the Chinese government is authorizing several companies to collect and compare information about the citizens, thus creating an omnipotent, omniscient system that assigns a “social credit rating” to anyone who uses any kind of online services, including dating sites like Baihe, and commercial sites like Alibaba.

And the Chinese people are really gobbling it up.

While it’s obviously difficult to know how the common person in the street is responding, it looks like the Chinese companies (again, under close scrutiny and agreement by the government) really know how to sell the idea to their customers. In fact, they’re letting the customers ‘sell’ the idea themselves to their friends, by turning the social credit rating into a game. People are comparing their ratings to each other, and are showing their ratings on their smartphones and their profiles on dating services. For them, it has become a game.

But it is a game with very serious consequences.

Her face fell when she saw my rating. I talked quickly – “I-It’s not what it looks like. You gotta understand, I didn’t have the money to repay Big Joe last week, but now I’m getting all the wages I was owed. Seriously, it’s OK. I’m OK financially. I really am.”

 

There’s no denying that credit history ratings can serve a positive purpose. They alert individuals and companies to the past history of con artists, scammers and generally unscrupulous people whom you’d rather not have any dealings with. The mere presence of a credit history rating could cause people to trust each other better, and also to behave themselves in their financial dealings. People from market societies tend to deal more fairly with strangers because they know their actions are always counted for or against them. A credit history rating essentially makes sure that everyone knows they are monitored for best behavior – and that’s a powerful force that can help maintain civil order.

It is also a powerful tool in the hands of a government that wants to control its citizens.

She bit her bottom lip, and her brow furrowed. She kept my smartphone in her hand, scrolling down quickly and reading all the fine details. Suddenly she raised her head and stared at me.

“You played Assassin’s Creed for one hundred hours last month?” she demanded to know. I nodded dumbly, and watched as the smile spread slowly on her lips. “I love that game! I play it all the time myself!”

I felt butterflies swimming across my vision. She was obviously The One for me. Such a perfect fit could never happen by chance. And yet, I felt I needed to check one last thing.

“Can I see your social rating too?” I asked timidly, and waited an eternity for her answer.

It’s pretty easy to understand how one’s credit history rating in America is determined. You just need to pay your bills in time in order to maintain a good credit history. A social credit rating, however, is a different thing altogether. At least one of the companies in charge of calculating it, does not agree to expose how the rating is determined, except that the calculation is based on “complex algorithm”. Which essentially means that nobody knows exactly how they’re being judged and rated – except for the big companies and the government.

Does that make you feel like the Chinese are entering into an Orwelian totalitarian rule? It should. There are persistent rumors that the Chinese social credit will be determined according to the users’ online activities in social media. When the Chinese government is in total control, who do you think will get a better social rating: the citizens who support the government unconditionally, or the dissidents who oppose the government’s doings?

In short, a social rating could be a great way for any government to control the population and the opinions and points of view it advocates and stands for. And since the social rating could be a dynamic and constantly changing parameter, it could change rapidly according to every new action a person takes, every sentence and cussword they utter. The government only has to set the rating algorithms – and the automated monitoring and rating systems will do the rest.

I walked back and forth in my small room, silently cursing myself for my foolishness. So what if her social rating was so low? She must have been a supporter of the opposition for it to drop by so much, but what of it? I’m not a political activist anyway. Why should I care?

And yet, I had to admit to myself that I cared. How could I go out with someone with that kind of a low rating? All my friends will know. They’ll laugh at me behind my back. Worse still, my own social rating would go down immediately. I will not only be the laughing stock of my class in the University – I would not even be legible anymore for a scholarship, and all my dreams for a higher degree would end right there and then.

I sighed, and sat back on the squeaky bed. She just wasn’t right for me, in this time in life. Maybe when I have a better social rating, to balance her own. Maybe the algorithms would change their decision about her someday.

But that would probably be too late for us.

 

The social rating system is currently voluntary, but within five years China is planning to rank everyone within its borders. It’s going to be interesting to see how it’s working out for the Chinese. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get to have a taste of the system as well, probably sooner than later. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, is still up to grabs.

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The Merchants of Doubt Strike Again

A few days ago I wrote a post about the WHO’s declaration that processed meat can cause cancer in human beings. Since posts from this blog also appear on my Facebook page, and many people comment there, I noticed a curious phenomenon: the knee-jerk response of many commenters was to cast doubt on the results of the committee who reached these decisions. Some of the doubters hinted that the committee members had ulterior motives. Others contended that the studies the committee relied upon to reach a decision, could not distinguish between meat eating and many other lifestyle choices that could heighten the risk of cancer.

Many indeed were those who doubted the results, for many wide-ranging reasons. And yet, from reading the comments it’s quite clear that none of them knows who exactly are the committee members, or which 800 papers they relied upon to make a decision. The main objective of the comments was to disparage the results that stand in contrast with the commenters’ current way of life.

Now, I’ll say straight ahead that the transparency of the evaluation process is definitely at fault. I haven’t yet had any success in finding the names of the experts on the committee, nor details about the “800 different studies on cancer in humans” they examined, or how much weight each study carried for them. In a world of information and transparency, it seems almost ridiculous that a body such as the WHO does not provide easy access to these details to the public, so that independent researchers and thinkers can make their own evaluations.

All the same, the first wave of doubters that we face now are probably a sign for the near future of the meat arena. In fact, if we learn anything from the way other industry giants have dealt with uncomfortable scientific evidence in the past, it’s that the spreaders of doubt will soon become prevalent in social media and on radio and TV.

Doubt, Tobacco and Climate Change

In the middle of the 20th century, the tobacco industry found itself facing a difficult challenge. An increasingly large number of scientific studies revealed a connection between smoking and cancer. The tobacco companies turned to one of the leading PR firms of the day, Hill & Knowlton, which reframed the situation: the dilemma was not whether or not smoking causes cancer, but what the public thinks on the matter. A key memo emphasizes the real issue from their point of view –

“There is only one problem—confidence and how to establish it; public assurance, and how to create it.”

In other words, the tobacco industry realized that it needed to create doubt about the scientific evidence. To that end, the industry founded ‘independent’ organizations that ‘studied’ the subject and reached conclusions that had almost no relation with the scientific reality or consensus. The industry also supported and promoted scientists who were willing to talk on behalf of tobacco and to publish studies (shaky as they were) against the connection between smoking and cancer.

I’ll admit this accusation would’ve seemed much like a conspiracy theory, if not for the fact that the internal communications in the tobacco companies was eventually made public. The industry could not challenge the scientific evidence for more than a few decades. Eventually, at the end of the 1990s, forty six states filed a collective lawsuit against the four largest tobacco companies. The companies agreed to pay a large fine, to shut down their funded ‘independent’ research organizations like the Center for Indoor Air Research, and to make all the related documents available to the public. This is how we know today how the history of tobacco in America really looks like: a grim mix of propaganda and greed, which was spilled on the public by the big companies. Overall, the tobacco industry had worked actively to plant and promote disinformation which has significantly damaged the public’s capabilities to act in a legal and enlightened way against smoking. Since a billion people are smoking today worldwide, and as the life expectancy of smokers is ten years shorter than that of their friends, it can be said that the tobacco companies have cost humanity ten billions years of living.

That is a pretty hefty fee to pay.

We see the same strategy of doubt casting being used today by ExxonMobil to counter scientific evidence for global warming and climate change, with some of the scientists who spoke against the relation between tobacco and cancer also speaking against the relation between human activity and climate change.

And quite soon, we’ll probably see it in use by the meat industry as well.

Meat and Doubt

Already, the meat industry starts casting doubt on the committee’s conclusions. Shalene McNeill, director of Human Nutrition Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, had this to say on the WHO’s declaration –

“These are studies that draw correlation, not causation. So these are studies that cannot be used to determine cause and effect.”

Her point is well-known to all scientists who review these studies, so I can’t imagine any of them falling for this old trick in interpretation.

another statements made by the meat industry about the WHO’s ruling included “Dramatic and alarmist overreach”, which seems strange in light of the fact that similar conclusions about the connection between meat and cancer have already been reached by the American Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Fund. So nothing dramatic or overreaching here. If anything, the WHO is just falling into the ranks of the current scientific understanding of the issue.

Nathan Gray, science editor in the popular FoodNavigator site, has reported that he has received a large number of responses from trade associations and PR agencies representing the meat industry last week. Most of these responses, according to Gray, claim that the committee’s findings are biased, and that “the science is undecided or misrepresented”.

In short, they’re all casting doubt. We’ve seen this strategy being used before. We’re seeing it again right now.

Conclusion and Forecast

You want a final forecast, don’t you? Well, here’s an easy one: unless some kind of a miracle happens, we’re going to see a lot of doubt mongering coming from the meat industry in the next few years. Get ready for it. It’s coming, and it’s also going to rely a lot on social media. Social media is the new communications arena, where anyone can level baseless accusations, spread rumors and thrive on attention. If ever there was a place almost designed for disinformation, this is it.

Get ready. The doubt industry is marshalling its forces once more.