Eradicate the Breeding Ground of Rumors

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This is a translation of a Qiushi article by Matt Sheehan. This was originally posted on his blog, An Optimist’s Guide to China, and reprinted here with kind permission.

Below is my translation of an article published by Wang Erping in “Seeking Truth” titled “Eradicate the Breeding Ground of Rumors”. The author is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Psychology. It’s a refreshing look at what really leads to the spread of rumors online: lack of information about events and lack of credibility for the government. It’s good to hear one Chinese academic standing up and talking sense while the crackdown on Big V’s continues online. The piece isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s sound and I think somewhat brave in these times.

As always, I appreciate any comments on the translation (the link to the original is above).

Eradicate the Breeding Ground of Rumors

by Wang Erping (王二平, Fellow at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Psychology)

Rumors are an ancient social-psychological phenomenon. From ancient times to the present day, regardless of whether it was in the midst of a struggle for power or a war, rumors have always been a low-cost and high-casualty weapon. Rumors are often seen in social life, where they’re aimed at public individuals and public incidents; those resulting from public emergencies are especially common. How are rumors born and spread? How can we eradicate the breeding ground of rumors? This is a new topic worth our attention.

The basic social processes for creating and spreading rumors

Uncertainty is the necessary condition for the breeding of rumors. Rumors are always half-connected to some uncertainty surrounding a real situation. For example, information about an incident is incomplete, or there’s no way to predict the impact of the incident or foresee the evolution of events. In short, rumors originate from the importance of and lack of clarity about an event. In the first place, the incident must be connected to the material interests of people, or it must arouse their interest, and as a result it becomes important to understand the incident. Secondly, the available information about the incident is incomplete. People are trying and failing to understand events, so they feel anxiety. This kind of anxiety drives people to speculate and make all kinds of guesses. Some of these guesses will be treated by others as fact, spread further, and thus they become a rumors.

As an example, take a town in which a radiation plant has an accident. After local officials visit the plant for inspections, they decide that because there is no damage to the environment, there’s no need to publicize information about the event. This means that the local people won’t be aware of information related to the incident. One month after the incident, a fire occurs near the radiation plant, and this leads to rumors that the fire was caused by nuclear leakage, or even that there’s been a nuclear explosion. Regardless of what the motives are, these rumors aren’t born simply because people lack scientific knowledge, what’s more important is that they lack relevant information. The result is that the social panic incited by the rumors suddenly explodes and some nearby residents flee their homes to escape danger. What’s intriguing is that some of the plant’s workers and nearby residents didn’t flee, in fact they scoffed at the rumors. Clearly, based on how much information one understands about the event, people’s behavior is completely different.

    Mutation is a classic characteristic of rumors. A notable characteristic of the spreading of rumors is that they don’t remain loyal to the “original”, but instead mutate according to the speculation and attitude of the recipient. As they are further disseminated, modification resulting from transmission further amplifies the uncertainty of the incident, increasing social anxiety and in some cases potentially leading to a social crisis. For incidents in which their exist differing value judgements, there is always the potential for modifications. For example in the case of the abnormal death of a middle school girl, there were at least three “editions” of the rumor: they differed on the identity of those involved, the relationship of those involved and the motives, among other dimensions.

    Value judgements are a crucial element relating to the direction of rumors. People won’t simply accept and preserve hearsay; they will only accept that which fits with their own value judgements. Faced with different types of uncertainty about an incident, people’s speculation will be subject to the influence of their own biased attitudes. Looked at from the other side, convincing statements of fact can also change these biased attitudes. Let’s revisit the above story as an example. After people learn about the radioactive leak, they will ask why the government didn’t publicly report the accident. Some people who are dissatisfied with the government will guess that it’s trying to cover up the truth about the accident. At this time many rumors that fit this kind of judgement will come out of their cages one by one. After people find out the truth about the accident, their skeptical attitude toward the government will naturally change.

    The “sheep herd effect” increases the influence of rumors. When people lack specialized knowledge and access to information, they will always blindly go with the flow. Social psychology has labeled this phenomenon the “sheep herd effect” (羊群效应). In traditional social interactions, people will always hold something back. Rumors relying on traditional social networks of familiar people for transmission will always spread rather slowly and the scope of their influence will be limited. But because of the anonymous nature of actions on the internet, a small number of “opinion leaders” can speak without restraint, launching a naval attack, heating up web sites, and creating the illusion that they represent the opinion of the majority (少数“意见领袖”言论放肆,通过“水军”热捧、网站热炒,造成代表多数人意见的假象). This causes netizens to abandon their independent judgement and to unquestioningly accept all kinds of these opinions. With more and more people engaging in speculation and commentary, rumors will undergo greater changes at greater speeds, making them difficult to control. When you add to this the fact that information isn’t disclosed in a timely manner, that the legal system remains inadequate, and that internet supervision isn’t done well, the breeding grounds for rumors are bound to spread. Research in and outside of China has concluded that on Twitter and Weibo, in discussions of hot topics more than ⅓ of the comments are rumors.

    The intensification of negative sentiment gives rumors the function of mobilizing group behavior. In recent years some mass incidents were intimately connected to the spreading of rumors. Group action often lacks organization and a clear agenda. Instead, it relies on the interaction between group identification, group sentiment, and a sense of group efficacy to mobilize participants toward realizing the group goals through joint action. Rumors will cause people’s originally divergent directions and strengths to converge. This causes rather weak negative sentiments to strengthen and increases the chances of participation in group action.

Rumors end with truth

Philosophers say, “rumors end with wise men”. It’s not a bad phrase, but it looks at the problem from an individual’s perspective, emphasizing the need not to be deceived by baseless rumors. Asking the common people to all become wise men and women is unrealistic, and at the same time it overlooks the responsibility of those tasked with public management. After a public incident occurs, it’s only natural that people will be everything from curious to panicked. Government departments have the obligation and the responsibility to proactively publicize the true information about the event. Spending a ton of energy chasing rumors is far less effective than directly eliminating the social psychological foundation that produces rumors by publicizing truthful information regarding events the people care about. When you eliminate uncertainty surrounding public incidents, you eliminate the source of rumors. Despite the fact that immediately following an event the government doesn’t possess perfect information, even the sporadic publication of information is enough to quell public anxiety stemming from a desire to understand the facts.

Rumors end with credibility

    The large scope for rumor transmission always has its roots in social psychology. Rumors are always the product of information asymmetry, when one side lacks information and the other side lacks credibility. Faced with uncertainty about public events, all kinds of speculation has the chance of spreading, but there’s a phenomenon that’s worth reflecting on: when rumors are at odds with the information given by government bureaus, skepticism about government judgements finds a more receptive audience. Looked at from another angle, these rumors are a catharsis for some people’s disillusionment with government and dissatisfaction with society. Adhering to the Party’s mass line isn’t just an empty slogan; it has to be put into practice throughout one’s work. Faced with the dissatisfaction of the people, even faced with rumors, government departments need to ask themselves: Why are some people so intensely dissatisfied with society? Why isn’t the information released by some departments seen as fully credible? Seriously analyzing these questions will help government departments discover errors in work, and help them see negligence in the handling of public affairs. If facing up to these shortcomings can lead to them candidly admitting and quickly correcting errors, it not only won’t damage their honor, but it will actually sooth the radical sentiments in society. It will make the masses believe in their government, be more understanding of their government and support their government. When a social psychology of credibility constantly grows in strength, the market for rumors will naturally disappear.

Rumors end with the rule of law

Curbing rumors also relies on the rule of law. Looking at the disaster zone of rumors — the internet — as netizens are enjoying their right to freedom of speech, they must at the same time respect the country’s rules and regulations by rationally expressing their opinions and consciously protecting order in the transmission of information. Netizens should not create rumors and they should not transmit rumors. Faced with uncorroborated and fantastical information, they need to be skeptical of what they hear and cautious in what they say. Web sites are a form of mass media and they have the responsibility to transmit truthful information without becoming a platform for publishing rumors. In dealing with the surging momentum of online rumors, the relevant departments must sound the alarm bell. They must strike with a heavy fist, deliver strong medicine and greatly increase the cost of illegally creating or spreading rumors. They must fundamentally eradicate the breeding ground for rumors.

(translators note: doesn’t that final paragraph sound like it was written to appease someone?)

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