China going full Black Mirror with "social credit" scores and restrictions

For those of you who have never seen the Netflix series Black Mirror, it’s a show which presents a series of mostly unrelated vignettes from various dystopian futures where the world is simply awful in a variety of horrifying ways. In the third season, they featured an episode called Nosedive which imagined a society where people’s social media rankings (based on feedback and ratings they received from other citizens each time they interact) determined their success in life. With high marks, you had access to the best rental properties, classy cars, highest paying jobs and invitations to the best parties. Too low of a score could see you taking the subway to your job cleaning public restrooms and living in the human equivalent of a roach motel.

Sounds like a terrifying, science fiction world, right? It absolutely does, except that it’s already taking place in China. They’re instituting precisely such a social media “credit” system where too many social offenses (which essentially means anything viewed by the Communist Party in a negative fashion) could block you from even being able to ride public transit. (Reuters)

China said it will begin applying its so-called social credit system to flights and trains and stop people who have committed misdeeds from taking such transport for up to a year.

People who would be put on the restricted lists included those found to have committed acts like spreading false information about terrorism and causing trouble on flights, as well as those who used expired tickets or smoked on trains, according to two statements issued on the National Development and Reform Commission’s website on Friday.

Those found to have committed financial wrongdoings, such as employers who failed to pay social insurance or people who have failed to pay fines, would also face these restrictions, said the statements which were dated March 2.

This is a classic example of life imitating the absolute worst form of art and it’s going to be rolled out starting on May 1st. The plan has the approval of China’s new President-for-Life Xi Jinping and the descriptions of how it will work almost make Black Mirror look like a garden party. He’s describing, “a social credit system based on the principle of ‘once untrustworthy, always restricted.’”

Unlike the Nosedive scenario, it sounds as if your neighbors, co-workers and the random street vendors you encounter won’t be able to trash your score simply for failing to leave a good tip or criticizing how they raise their kids. The statistics being measured will all be based on what activities or speech the Communist Party deems favorable or unapproved. Criticizing the country’s leadership within earshot of anyone else will obviously earn you some demerits, as will engaging in recreational activities which are deemed suspicious. And anyone will be able to drop a dime on you so you’d best be looking over your shoulder at all times.

Do you think we’re immune from that in the United States? We already have rating systems cropping up which can directly affect you, though not through the power of the government. Every time you take an Uber anywhere you’re asked to rate your driver at the end. But did you know that the drivers are rating you also? If your score drops too low you’ll probably notice it’s taking a lot longer to get matched for a ride. You could even have your account canceled.

You similarly receive “scores” if you’re a seller on E-bay. Other examples abound. At this point, the government doesn’t seem inclined to try to hop on this ride, but do they even need to? Facebook, Google, Twitter and the other major platforms already have a shocking level of influence on our lives. It would only take a few tweaks before they could begin sharing user ratings with the whole world and who knows where they could go from there?

It’s a brave new world, isn’t it? Maybe George Orwell wasn’t so crazy after all.