banner by Camille Sturdivant

Dystopian Fiction or 21st Century Reality

by Jasmine Pabla

Imagine basing your friend group on how many likes they get on Instagram, or getting a promotion based on the number of times your post was retweeted. Now imagine basing where you live, where you eat, and where you work from a combination of all your social media statistics. This type of social “credit” system seems like it’s out of a dystopian fiction novel, but in 2020, China hopes to employ just that.1

In 2014, China announced that it would implement a social credit system for all citizens. This new social credit is supposed to resemble what American’s consider their credit score. The score would be an indicator of financial credibility for citizens and small businesses who need to borrow money but do not have financial history. About 21% of China’s citizens do not have bank accounts, and a significant portion of the economy is cash-based. However, there is a social component in this credit system as well that notes lawful behavior and punishes for crimes such as a parking violation. 3

In China’s pilot study, eight private technology companies were asked to give their customers a social credit score based on compiled information from multiple sources and a chosen algorithm. Although the intentions of the score were to help the citizens of China prove their trustworthiness, reports of invading privacy shed some light on the potential downfalls of such a system. 4

This social credit system is eerily similar to the rating system depicted in Black Mirror’s episode “Nosedive. ” Black Mirror is a dystopian series created by Charlie Brooker. Like the classic black and white series Twilight Zone, Black Mirror addresses social issues by creating a parallel universe in which technology is more advanced. However, some of the technology, such as using an integrated rating system to rank citizens is not simply a fantasy. Fans of the show were quick to point out the similarities between the “Nosedive” rating system and China’s proposed social credit system.

In the universe of “Nosedive”, citizens like our protagonist, Lacie, are rated based on their interactions with others and their presence on social media. These ratings affect where Lacie lives, who she is supposed to engage with, which office she works in and smaller perks which include express lanes or priority boarding. The plot of this episode is centered around Lacie’s struggle to gain a better rating to afford a home in her dream lifestyle community.

Though this is fiction, the perks that Lacie receives are similar to those that Chinese citizens received from some of the eight technology companies that participated in the pilot study. For example, users with higher scores on Sesame Credit, a credit-scoring system from the shopping platform Alibaba, can waive car rental deposits and have access to expedited airport security checks.

These credit scores are not just based on payments, but what the consumers paid for.  When evaluating scores, Li Yingyun, Sesame's technology director said that "[s]omeone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility” and will thus score accordingly. 2 Additional, more sinister, factors such as exercise routine, time of day people went online, and social media friends were proposed to be added. These scores are not simply a barrier from getting loans, but can affect other social aspects of daily life. “Fail to pay a parking fine and you might not be allowed to book a train. Become embroiled in a food safety scandal and your children could be banned from certain schools.” 1

Adding these more social aspects would bring China’s “social credit score” eerily close to that in “Nosedive”. Quantifying social interactions is the basis for the system in this Black Mirror episode. This type of people-rating is concerning considering the fate of Lacie, whose only option to break free from the system was to go to jail.

These concerns are shared by a Chinese novelist who spoke out against the Chinese government online: “My social-media account has been canceled many times, so the government can say I am a dishonest person,” he said. “Then I can’t go abroad and can’t take the train.” 5 Even more problematic is the power this would give corrupt government officials: “Local officials can simply mark troublemakers as ‘trust-breakers,’ and prevent them from buying plane or train tickets.”

Wang, from Human Rights Watch, an international non-profit and non-governmental human rights organization, also points out that “If the government gets this right, it’s a form of surveillance that could be total.” 1

“Nosedive” was meant to be a social media satire, but the implications of this episode are becoming a reality. The Chinese government has decided to halt the pilot study for now, but not for privacy reasons, but to prevent the 8 technology companies from gaining more power. A social credit system is still in the works. When asked about this new system, Charlie Brooker accurately sums it up: “They’re going to do the system from ‘Nosedive’ for citizens! It’s incredibly sinister. Am I right in thinking that your ranking is affected by your friends, so if you hang with the wrong crowd, your social ranking will go down? Wow. It’s completely mental.” 6