Fighting against Rumors in the Information age?

People’s Daily published a piece of news yesterday (April 27, 2013), titled “To stop the rumor, we speed up our work “ (阻击谣言 速度加快), which presented the rumors and facts as rumor denials on weibo platforms since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Ya’an, China’s Sichuan Province on April 20, 2013. According to the report, one of the progresses in dealing with rumors this time is that “government initiated response to the rumor as soon as the earthquake happened.” Such kind of activities, based on different levels of government and military weibo accounts, ensured rumor denials came out as quickly as possible after rumors popped up, which to a degree reduces the possible negative influences of rumors on society in general and rescue works in Sichuan province in particular.

 Fighting against rumors not just exists during disasters or emergency events, such as earthquakes. Instead, the war against rumors has a long history and researches on rumor controls have been carried out across political sciences, sociology, psychology, social psychology, communication and so on. In recent years, in particular, the ubiquity of digital technologies has generated unprecedented possibilities for the proliferation of rumors. One famous example comes from the rumor in the internet around the USA president Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Besides that, rumor spreading via the new communication technologies, including social media, mobile phones, and so on, damages privacy, cripples business reputation (e.g., Solove, 2007), or even escalates and triggers panics in society (e.g., Kleinman and Watson 2006). Rumor—and rumor controls—in the information age accordingly grows up as a noteworthy—but still largely under-explored, so far as I see it—field within both the humanities and social sciences.

The situation in China presents an interesting, relevant case to investigate rumor and rumor control in the information age. On the one hand, as we already read from the news, Chinese government and its agencies never gives up their efforts to stop and eliminate rumors, be it through mouth-to-ear or the internet and mobile phones. More specifically, the authorities emphasized the false, fabricated, defamatory, and irrational nature of rumors. The strategies adopted consist in, for instance, naming rumor as “a ‘new-style’ political weapon” by certain foreign forces to attack the leadership of the party, drawing colorful parallels between rumors and “pornography, gambling and drugs”, or endowing rumor-mongering with “an ulterior motive”—it is made out to disturb social order, disrupt public security, or even incite to overthrow state power (e.g. Hu, 2011). Against this backdrop, governments and public security organs launch surveillance and investigations to search out and arrest rumormongers, quash rumors, and eliminate their “pernicious effects” on social and political stability. In particular, in the middle of March 2012 a “coup rumor” alleging “military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing” even lead to a temporary shutdown of part of the function (replying) of the country’s two popular microblogs, Sina weibo and Tecent weibo, between March 31 and April 3, which “could act to stop the spread of rumors” (see related reports here, here and here).

On the other hand, although Chinese authorities have tried it hard to eradicate rumor, rumors spring up one after another, frequently putting the whole society in a state of anxiety and nervousness (for instance, here). Given their huge user population, new media platforms, in particular weibo and mobile devices, have quickly become the relevant rumor-mongering machines ever in China (e.g., Bristow 2012). Frequent online and mobile device-disseminated rumor emergences affect the country, turning it into what Foreign Policy named “the people’s Republic of Rumors,” aggravating social tensions, and sometimes evoking collective actions in recent years. In some cases, such as the “coup rumor“ one, even one ridiculous message (or, the salt-buying frenzy prompted by internet rumors in 2011) would go viral in a short time, leading to a large-scale panic or disturbance in society. How does rumor proliferate through new media platforms? How do new media platform shape rumor and rumor control? What is the reason for people to spread the rumor? Revisiting the idea of rumors in the information age by taking China as the case, among many other things, will offer a new approach to understand both rumor and contemporary Chinese society.


April 28, 2013

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  1. Rasmus Nordstrom

    Yes, I second the thought discussed above. It sounds strange and weird but we all get to hear shocking rumors time and again. This is happening even when we are surrounded with all the modern informational mediums. It seems, the basic human instinct to gain more than required information and to spread it beyond oneself is not going to die soon. No matter what the technology status will be like.

  2. Karl

    This is an interesting piece on a really hot topic, which I think should be explored in-depth. I look forward to your upcoming work on this. I am curious about the definition of rumor that you use. How do you understand the concept? Is a rumor necessarily “false”? Can “false” rumors and “true” facts be easily distinguished between? I think that there is possibly a very interesting question related to this having to do with the politics of labeling something as a rumor. If the idea that lots of rumors that are false circulate in society becomes accepted and it is the government that labels something as a rumor, then surely the label can be used by the government to deal with stories that possibly embarrass it? Is this an aspect of rumor politics that you intend to explore?

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