Sesame Credit is changing the way the Chinese government keeps its citizens obedient by turning obedience and conformity into a game and giving people high scores.
Tencent, the owners of China’s largest social network and instant messaging service, have joined up with Alibaba, the Chinese answer to Amazon, to create Sesame Credit, a social credit scoring system. It works by taking data from a number of different sources and turning that into a score, which quantifies how good a citizen you are, and how obediently you follow the party line.
Sesame Credit uses online shopping and social networks to influence your credit score in an attempt to influence the behaviour of the Chinese populace. If you make purchases deemed ‘valuable’ on Alibaba, China’s largest online retailer, such as local agricultural products or work shoes, your Sesame Credit score will go up. But if you make purchases that are seen as negative, such as video games or Japanese anime, your score will go down. Similarly, if you share things that are deemed positive on social media, such as a state-sponsored story on economic improvement, your score will go up, but if you link to a story about a stock market crash or Tiananmen Square, your score will go down.
This may not seem too insidious, but people’s scores have real world implications. High scores mean special benefits, such as it being easier to get paperwork to travel or to get a loan. Sesame Credit has also teamed up with Baihe, China’s largest online dating service. People are enthusiastic about posting their scores on Baihe because those with high scores will be given more prominent spots on the website.
Apart from making it harder to get a date, there are currently no consequences for a low score in the pilot scheme. But there are talks that when the government introduces a mandatory scheme in 2020, penalties such as slower internet speeds and restricted job opportunities will be introduced.
The worst part about this gamification of obedience is that it scans your friends on your social networks, and you can lose points if you have friends with low scores. By showing people the scores of others, and how it is dragging them down and restricting their rewards, it encourages people to influence the behaviours of others to become more obedient. If someone spreads dangerous or radical ideas online people will stop associating with them. All of this is not done through the traditional method of fear, but positive reinforcement of a higher score in a game. Neighbours will spy on neighbours not because they have been told to, but because they want to.
Those that are currently taking part are choosing to. Many view it as a positive, patriotic new initiative, and are bragging on Chinese social media about their high score. Instead of the previous methods of fear and intimidation, China is introducing a competition to see who can agree with the government the most, and a lot of people are loving it.