Op-Ed Contributors

In search of truth on the Internet

Updated: 2011-09-27 07:50

By Wu Fatian (China Daily)

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The Alliance to Bust Rumors was organized in May by a group of ordinary Internet users who wanted to get to the truth of stories that appear on the Net. The group defines itself as a "self-disciplinary Internet user organization in an era of individual media".

In less than three months, the alliance has busted more than 120 rumors. These range from stories of young girls working as prostitutes in the Sichuan earthquake zone to "drug attacks" on the Beijing subway to "Guo Yao", who pretended to be related to the victim of the Wenzhou train crash.

The alliance has more than 60,000 followers, but its rumor-busters have endured abusive criticism and suffered personal attacks from Internet users, and the alliance has been accused of only busting rumors and falsehoods created by ordinary people and not officials.

I think that the main reason for this is the special characteristics of the rumors themselves. To be more precise, rumor-busting always follows the rumors. The selectivity of rumor-busting is the result of the selectivity of rumor manufacturing and dissemination.

The government departments and official media hold the traditional means for communication, whereas micro blogs are the means by which ordinary citizens can express their personal opinions or air their concerns.

Rumor-manufacturing is the deliberate fabrication of stories or distortion of information. Official methods often try to guide public opinion in a certain direction, and some even embellish certain facts to suit a particular purpose, but these do not involve fabricating facts.

If the authorities fabricate facts and they are exposed, they will suffer a tremendous loss of public confidence; creating mistrust and fear is contrary to their need to maintain stability. Therefore, very few rumors on the Net come from officials.

But public opinion leaders and ordinary Internet users can get attention by using false facts to support their positions and rumors to attack the authorities.

Micro-blog rumors have proliferated to such an extent they are now a blight on Internet information. The Alliance to Bust Rumors cannot hope to dispel all such rumors. Instead it can only target a few widely disseminated and harmful lies. Some people have criticized this selectivity.

Behind the more influential rumors, there are always a few rumor-manufacturers plus a few people of fame who are disseminating them. These people may even have millions of followers. If they are negligent and forward inaccurate information, the effect on society can be quite harmful.

For example, "Guo Yao", who pretended to be related to a victim of the Wenzhou train crash, had only very few followers at first. But when celebrities started supporting her there was an exponential increase in her number of followers. Courage is required to challenge these rumors.

Rumor-busting must be directed against these false facts and supported by evidence if it is to be effective.

In this way calm and rational observers who respect the facts can be persuaded that a rumor is false. However, it is impossible to persuade those who manufacture and disseminate rumors that they are in the wrong or change the opinion of those who believe that it is right to disseminate rumors and that exposing them is a crime.

Those involved with the alliance seek the truth and support the right of citizens to monitor and criticize the government and the right to challenge the processes by which public authority is exercised. But we advocate that everything should be based upon facts and do not rely on the power of rumors.

The author is a founding member of the Alliance to Bust Rumors, formed at Sina Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging website.

(China Daily 09/27/2011 page8)


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