[EDITOR’S NOTE: After a second round of propaganda directives on July 29 effectively brought an end to a week of feverish discussion of government negligence in the handling of the July 23 train collision in Wenzhou, much attention in China turned to the issue of how the ensure the quality and reliability of information on China’s social media. This debate seemed to cap a summer in which platforms like Sina Microblog and QQ Microblog have had a dramatic impact on such stories as the Red Cross Society of China (“Guo Meimei”) scandal and problems facing China’s high-speed rail network. But much of the doubting about the ethics of social media angered Chinese internet users, who saw attempts to broad-brush platforms like Sina Microblog as rumor mills as just the latest action to control information. Some of the most intelligent writing on the issue of “rumor,” “truth” and social media has been that of CMP fellow and Peking University professor Hu Yong (胡泳), who has drawn a clear line between official press control policies, the crisis of credibility facing official news, and the general appeal of hearsay. The following is a partial translation of an essay by Hu Yong that appeared in the August 12 edition of the Economic Observer. The points Hu makes are of particular relevance to the prevailing silence now over protests yesterday in the city of Dalian. As controls were strictly in force over this story, social media provided the only source of information.
This is an age pervaded by rumor. On July 28, People’s Daily Online summed up eight big rumors surrounding the Wenzhou train collision. On August 3, China Central Television’s Morning News program reported under the title “Where is the ethical bottom line on microblogs?” the story of how one user on QQ Microblog called “Guo Yao” (郭瑶) had impersonated the relative of a crash victim.
In the CCTV report, a member of the so-called Anti-Rumor League, [identified as] “a group of self-organizing enthusiastic web users working as rumor busting volunteers,” endorsed the idea of a “moral bankruptcy” (沦丧) in the ethics of microblogs. This group, formed on May 18 [this year], says that it has thus far been involved in the busting of more than one-hundred [online] rumors. But it was in the midst of the incident of the [Wenzhou] train collision [on July 23] that the group was cast into some doubt, accused of “selectively busting rumors” (选择性辟谣) and “only busting popular rumors, not busting official rumors” [or falsehoods] (只辟民谣，不辟官谣). Some even suggested in the fiercest of words that the Anti-Rumor League was “a platform carrying out directed attacks from a predefined political position as it hoists the signboard of rumor busting.”
Li Mu (李牧), a core figure in the League, also admits that it was wrong of the Anti-Rumor League to trust overly in the Ministry of Railways during the “7.23” incident. Excessive trust in the declarations of the government, and the use of official government news releases in countering many rumors is a major defect of the Anti-Rumor League. The publicity slogan of the Anti-Rumor League is “serving the truth” (为真相服务), but there’s a little something about the operation of current politics that everyone is clear about, and that is that the government is not just a natural provider of the truth. Very often, it is the government that is guilty of the “original sin,” and harboring skepticism towards it is very reasonable.
As for the charge of “selectively busting rumors,” the principal founder of the Anti-Rumor League, Wu Fatian (吴法天), has responded: “The orientation of the Anti-Rumor League is about being a spontaneous organization of self-discipline among web users in the We Media age, and what it mainly does is issue accurate information about microblog rumors, so it works through microblog posting by the public.” At first glance, it seems this starting off point would yield few misgivings. Microblogs are certainly not a clean and blameless territory, and spontaneous popular action to exercise self-discipline over speech on microblogs accords with the basic character of self organization in the We Media era. But if we look more carefully, the act of chiefly targeting “popular rumors” in rumor busting actually suggests a major deficiency of wisdom: it perhaps actively covers up or passively overlooks a hard fact of contemporary society, which is that official lies (官方的谎言) outpace popular rumors, constituting the greatest interference and obstruction with the truth.
When the goal of busting rumors is to get at the truth this is a good thing. But if rumor busters stand solely on the side of the government to blacken and attack popular public opinion, this isn’t in the interest of discovering the facts and the truth but in fact serves the goal of so-called channeling of public opinion (舆论引导), thereby serving as a tool aiding and abetting those people and organizations that endeavor to twist the truth.
In many online incidents, “strengthening channeling of public opinion” and “handling rumor according to the law” have appeared in the same directives [from press control authorities], and this is a tactic we have seen from the government for a long time. We can say that in fact it is the conduct of “strengthening channeling of public opinion” that has caused official information to be so wanting in credibility, which has in turn nurtured a rich soil for the transmission of “rumors.” On the one hand, the government has provided an environment conducive to the spread of rumors, and on the other it sternly lashes out against rumors, placing itself in the midst of an insoluble contradiction.
Since the SARS epidemic in 2003, the massive losses and risks that come with the suppression of media coverage of sudden-breaking incidents by relevant government departments have been illustrated again and again. As the media say nothing, or become representatives of the discourse of those in power, this inevitably becomes the principal reason for the spread of rumor and social panic.
Under [the policy of] “correct guidance of public opinion” the traditional media only selectively report major social and political events, and the standards are entirely within their hands. Whatever is regarded as negative (反面), destructive (消极), disturbing (添乱), discrediting (抹黑) is not permitted, and everything that is regarded as positive (正面), constructive (积极), encouraging (鼓劲) and praising (添彩) is openly proclaimed. Their basic criterion for deciding [what is positive or negative] is whether or not something poses a danger to social stability, and they care nothing for whether or not damage is done to the public’s right to know, or whether their actions might pose a grave danger to the life and property of the people.
When normal social communication mechanisms are crippled, abnormal communication mechanisms will be enlivened. Hearsay about sudden-breaking incidents is mostly transmitted by word of mouth, through instant messaging, online forums (and later added to microblogs), and communication much earlier than for formal releases in newspapers, television, radio and other traditional forms of media. People are much more inclined to believe rumors of uncertain provenance than they are to believe official news reports by newspapers, television and other mass media, which creates a situation in which “news looks like rumor and rumor looks like news.” Under the control of the government, transmission methods that are twisted by administrative power have exactly the opposite of their intended effect in an environment in which rumors are widely disseminated.