Wechat: Consequences of a Social Credit System
The “social credit system,” first announced in 2014, aims to reinforce the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful,” according to a government document.
Like private credit scores, a person’s social score can move up and down depending on their behavior. The exact methodology is a secret — but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news online.
WeChat has more than 1 billion users worldwide.
For this week’s ethical challenge, I decided to take the idea of the Wechat’s social currency system and make it feel tangible for my fellow students by asking them to give themselves social ranking numbers based on their likelyhood to parke in the following criteria. These criteria are based in real criteria that the Chinese government uses to rate their citizens.
-smoking in non smoking areas
-playing video games too long
-wasting money on frivolous purchases
-posting on social media
-spreading ‘fake news’
-refusing military service
-walking dog without a leash
Based on the numbers that my classmates come up with, there will be an individual with a lowest score and highest score. The highest score is the highest number of social demerits. The lowest score is the cleanest record.
I will then reveal the real life consequences of a high vs. low score.
So, this all seems very risky and invasive, however, what if we attempted to see the positive impacts that a system like this may have on society. In order to challenge and solidify my own ethical framework, I wanted to take a stab at seeing how this may actually be a help.
“Despite the creepiness of the system — Human Rights Watch called it “chilling,” while Botsman called it “a futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control” — some citizens say it’s making them better people already.
“For example, when we drive, now we always stop in front of crosswalks. If you don’t stop, you will lose your points. At first, we just worried about losing points, but now we got used to it.”
In order to expand on the possibilities in class, I assigned each individual a random economic class. ‘Citizens’ with the lowest numbers are rewarded with real benefits that mirrors ones that exist within the current Chinese system. These benefits are varied, but all affect the financial mobility of the individual.
Over time, if those with good credit can continue to benefit from the financial bonuses, there is possibility for new kinds of mobility within their class current class system.
why is this important?
1. This is not hypothetical.
“WeChat, today, offers a combination of services available from several different companies in the West, including Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Uber, to name a few. Its comprehensive nature has also made it one of the most powerful tools for government surveillance over Chinese citizens.
And apps and social networks in other parts of the world may soon be a lot more like it.”
This is not necessarily isolated to China. China is a growing power in our global society, and their influence is broad. The principles that are being enacted in Wechat’s social currency system are likely to be mimicked by other societies social apps.
2. Global trends are important.
Testing against your own ethical gut feeling is a good practice. If this is inevitable for Chinese citizens, as well as something that other societies will likely learn towards in the future (including American society), we need to consider how we should proceed and maintain our ethical framework as a society.
3. There is no way to opt out.
When we are thinking about the importance of privacy and the way our systems may change and adapt in the face of existing and emergent technologies, it is important to consider the power and influence of social systems as the consequences of using them begin to cross over into our non-digital lives.
When certain trends are inevitable, even if I don’t like them or agree with them, it is important for me as a global thinking designer to test against my own bias in order to think more creatively surrounding how to build safe systems and products within our technology driven world.