Are you a good citizen?

The first episode of the British science fiction series Black Mirror featured a world in which people could rate each other from one to five stars for every interaction they had, which in turn impacted their socioeconomic status. It was released in 2016, and was mainly comedic. Americans watched on Netflix, commented around the water cooler, and moved on with their lives. But for anyone who managed to view the episode in China, the plot probably felt eerily familiar.

In June 2014, the State Council of China published a document called “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System” which explored a new concept – what if there was a national trust score that rated the kind of citizen you were? It would work the same way any app rating system does (think Uber for your life) and the government would manage points (up or down) based on people’s routine behaviors and purchasing history, ultimately leading to what would be your “social credit” score. Buy a bunch of diapers? You’re a good dad, and your score goes up. Spend 11 hours playing online video games? Sorry pal, your score is taking a hit.

Dubbed the Social Credit System (SCS), the Chinese government sees the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment, where keeping trust is glorious.” China has about 1.4 billion citizens, and tens of millions are already taking part in the program. By the year 2020, the government will roll it out nationwide and every Chinese citizen will have a searchable file of data from public and private sources tracking their social credit.

 

CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE

Okay, so what? So the government gives you a creepy score, who cares? Well, what if that score rewarded or punished you IRL (in real life)? Yup. Here’s what is happening. Soon after the social credit score idea, e-commerce giant Alibaba launched a product called Sesame Credit. It was China’s first effective credit scoring system (like their FICO score), but also much broader, factoring in your “social credit”. The result is an all-encompassing number (from 350-950) that can lead to benefits (no deposits on apartments, skipping healthcare lines, online discounts) or punishments (restricted travel, inability to get a loan).

Sound awful? Everyone in China thinks it’s a great idea – at least, that’s what it seems. The Chinese regime has intensified its control over the internet and now has an army (a literal army) of more than 10 million (yes, MILLION) men known as the “50 Cent Army” (no relation to the “In Da Club” rapper…probably) who post favorable content on behalf of the Party and monitor/control what appears online. So, if you’re a Chinese citizen and search for, “Is the government controlling my life a good thing?” the results would say “yes” and then your credit score would drop for even asking.

 

CON-FIDENCE

Trust, already taking huge hits in 2018, will become the paramount marketing issue in 2019, and advertising/PR agencies will have to reckon with the new mob rule on the internet. In a world where every shop is angling for an edge over the competition, there will be tough ethical conversations with clients who might want to take advantage of technology that can provide positive online reputation manipulation. Brand loyalty will be called into question more often, and social media teams will grapple with an existential crisis of determining what/who a real interaction even is. Media outlets, once sought for their third-party credibility, will be devalued, tossed aside by “social influencers” with more clout (i.e. better social credit).

The Orwellian nightmare in China might be going on thousands of miles from America, but is its reality here that far off? Think about it – we already rate drivers, restaurants, movies and even physicians, impacting their lives and businesses. We claim that it’s democratic, that if they provided a “better” service, their ranking would improve. Sound familiar? Better for whom? When quality is judged by quantity and when you introduce bots and algorithms that can generate fake likes, comments and reviews, who can you really trust?