Illustration: Liu Rui
Rumors are as old as civilization.
Microblogs didn't create rumors, but they certainly help them spread further and faster. And there are few credible voices to try to stop their spread.
In the Internet age, people do not worry about a shortage of information, but about the information explosion. The rumors about drug poisoning cases on the Beijing metro scared some passengers. The rumors about "forced ripening" of Hainan bananas seriously affected the income of farmers there.
Microblog rumors are common and hard to trace. It's been argued that microblogs are self-managing, and that false rumors will naturally disappear. But this is a very slow process and not an inevitable or reliable one. Hysterical rumors often do real damage.
Perhaps the government should step in to deny rumors. Reliable information provision, after all, is supposed to be a government duty. But the clarifications made by the government are often late and perfunctory. And people don't trust the government to deal with issues involving the authorities' own incompetence or mistakes.
After the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash, Guo Yao, a relative of one of the victims, started microblog rumors about the deaths that spread quickly. But the government did not respond, and may not even have known about the rumors.
Ordinary users examined pictures Guo had posted, and found they had been taken from elsewhere, and that the so-called bereaved families in the pictures hadn't actually lost anyone in the Wenzhou accident. These refutations were more convincing than official statements, because they were checked by many people and the evidence was clearly displayed.
There may be many reasons for starting rumors, but the purpose of denying them is just to make the truth clearer. Every netizen needs to learn to be a responsible citizen who thinks independently, judges rationally, and can make clear decisions about the credibility of the information he or she receives.
But a certain polarization has occurred online. Some Weibo celebrities are worried about the rumor refuters. They attack non-governmental rumor refuting groups viciously and call on their followers to do the same.
A well-known journalist even stated, "Rumors are the facts rooted deep in people's hearts. They're not the facts, but are more real than facts. They cannot hold water, but are more compelling than the truth. They're full of loopholes, but can still convince people." In my reading of this view, he's saying it's reasonable to create and spread rumors.
On the microblogs, rumors and clarifications battle. Some people even see efforts to end rumors as giving ammunition to the government, which they don't have enough trust on.
Why are attempts to establish the truth, backed by sufficient evidence, often slammed?
Because they harm the cause of the people who spread the rumors in the first place, which proves that these kinds of investigations by ordinary users are necessary.
Responsible citizens and rational criticism are the symbol of a mature civil society. It is right for citizens to query, supervise and criticize the government. These actions should be conducted on the basis of fact, and rumors should not be used to attack the government. We should distinguish queries and rumors. Correct ideas do not need false facts to spread.
Through continuous clarification of rumors, we may finally get the truth. People who stand against the clarification of rumors in the name of freedom of speech are actually enemies of the truth.
The author is an associate professor at the China University of Political Science and Law. firstname.lastname@example.org