Mark Zuckerberg is in the process of a multi-day grill session by the United States Senate. The focus — infringement of privacy, breaches in data protection for millions of Facebook users and a continually expanding gray area of information distribution on the internet. Facebook faces accusations of allowing third parties to access reams of data on Facebook users — and potentially ‘ghost profiles’ of those who have stayed away — and of failing to prevent partisan political messages from influencing potential voters.

These breaches of privacy and free will perhaps exhibit some of the most negative effects of social media on politics and culture, but they are also an old refrain for American politics. Accusations of wiretapping, NSA data breaches, and other high-profile incidents regularly break the headlines, and in the age of information technology, targeted ads, and facial recognition software, many have begun to wonder if personal privacy is a thing of the past.

With its newly proposed “Social Credit” system, China seems to have made its opinion clear.

Social Credit

Set to go into effect in 2020, “Social Credit” will exist as a way of regulating good and bad behavior throughout the most populous country in the world. Using a complex data-driven profile — which extracts information from social media, online shopping and tax records — the government will determine which citizens pull their weight, and which are a drain on the system. Privileges and sanctions will be given out accordingly — model citizens will be given access to loans, while those deemed “lazy” may have trouble traveling or applying for similar loans.

Of course, some questions arise from this system. Namely, critics point to the need for an effective algorithmic approach to rating a tremendous number of citizens. The final conception of the system will likely use some score-rating system. Some preliminary blueprints are already utilized in the private sector, monitoring employees on everything from relationships with coworkers to the purchasing of video games.

Run-ins with the law are also taken into account, and everyday violations such as traffic tickets and jaywalking can significantly lower a citizen’s score. Likewise, business disputes and court rulings all contribute to a positive or negative score under the pilot version. If a citizen’s score is too low, loans become unavailable, and — in some cases — the individual is barred from taking long-range transportation or traveling abroad.

Good Guys And Bad Guys

If this sounds Orwellian to you, well, it is. It is also the most significant step in the direction of social engineering since the tech boom, and “social credit” makes use of all the opportunities granted by our day and age. Virtually everyone in modern industrial nations exists through virtual profiles, and the Chinese government seeks to make use of this and organize its citizens into “good” and “bad” guys. By accessing everything from online purchases to court documents, any government can easily compile a similar profile of its citizens.

And if China — with its 1.38 billion citizens — can construct an effective scoring algorithm for all its constituents, any other government certainly can as well. The upshot is that those deemed idle — an assertion supported by tons of data from various sources —will face the consequences, which will, in turn, push them toward more industrious ends. Those who are model workers will be allowed additional privileges, rewarding them for their civic contributions.

In theory, this is meant to improve Chinese society over the long term. In reality, it might do the exact opposite.

Sorting citizens into a system of numbers is problematic and discounts the basic individuality of humans. Occupationally, a citizen might contribute heavily to the economy — representing China at an E-Sports tournament, for instance — all while partaking in activities (video gaming) scored negatively by the system. The Chinese court system is notably soft to bribery and corruption and might swing a case in one direction or another, ultimately dooming an individual and compromising the integrity of the entire system.

This is not to get into the moral ambiguity of the entire exercise, and social engineering in general. While most Western powers — the US in particular — are big on individuality and the protection of one’s private life, this is not necessarily the same case for all nations. China, in particular, has traditionally put a heavy emphasis on the fusion of one’s work and their outside life. This has manifested in a population dense in stress and overwork.

Social Stresses

Transitioning to a system that will actively monitor one’s outside activities is incredible stress to put on an individual. In some sense, a numbers-driven and objective analysis of one’s social worth appeals for its cleanliness, but it also encourages an unhealthy level of social competition. And the stress — to pay loans on time, to never jaywalk, to avoid buying liquor or video games or junk food, to secure the promotion and avoid or dominate all legal disputes — might be too much for many to handle.

For now, many Chinese citizens are actually in favor of the system. Only time will tell how it pans out.