Truth, Rumour, Weibo & Coca-Cola

At The Atlantic, Helen Gao examines the Bo Xilai affair’s blurring of the lines between truth and rumour, and the corrosive effects of the government’s own information policies.

On the morning of April 11, Chinese web users woke up to find that the reports that had previously filled their Weibo pages — in coded words adopted to evade the censors — now featured the front page of every official newspaper. The rumor, repressed by censors and dodged by government spokesmen, had become a state-approved fact overnight.

“What was treated as attacks spread by ‘international reactionary forces’ has now become truth. Then what other ‘truths’ exposed by foreign media should we believe?…God knows!” wrote Weibo user Jieyigongjiang. “How did it all become truth? Was I being fooled?” user Zousifanye asked ….

China’s heavy-handed censorship may now actually accelerate the spread of rumors, which could be seen as more plausible precisely because they are censored. Chinese web users trying to figure out the most likely truth must speculate not only about the rumors themselves, but also about every move the government makes in response. Did the state order censors to crack down on a particular story because they want quell a false and potentially destabilizing rumor or because they want to prevent an uncomfortable truth from spreading? If censors clamp down on a growing rumor later than expected or not at all, is this because they’re simply slow or because government wants to build up public attention for its own purposes …? For Chinese netizens trying to parse out truth from rumors, every story and its government response are a new mystery, and the guessing game never really ends.

While the focus often falls on political gossip, rumours also thrive in other areas of public interest, from natural disasters and industrial accidents to food safety. Danwei translated a varied list of ten harmful rumours from the front page of Monday’s People’s Daily, including the following:

A text message that read: “Family, classmates, friends, don’t eat tangerine oranges! This year the tangerines from Guangyuan (Sichuan Province), have maggots under their peal. Sichuan buried a large batch and sprinkled them with lime.” This SMS was forwarded from phone to phone, and reported by news sources. It led to a massive drop in the price of tangerines across the country, and a loss of RMB 1.5 billion for the agriculture industry.

Rumors about an explosion at a chemical plant in Xiangshui (Jiangsu province). This caused panic and 4 people were killed in a car accident trying to escape.

Students at Chongqing Jiaotong University College of Civil Engineering and Architecture spread a rumor about acupuncture needles being too hot.

The list is part of a blitz of anti-rumour articles in recent weeks amid a crackdown which, in the wake of Bo’s downfall, has even claimed leftist sites such as Utopia. At least one exemption seems to remain, however:

An official investigation into a Coca-Cola plant in North China’s Shanxi Province was initiated yesterday after media reports claimed nine batches of disinfectant tainted Coke entered the consumer market ….

An anonymous employee at the Shanxi Coca-Cola plant recently told China National Radio (CNR) that on February 8, large amounts of chlorine were found in the water used to manufacture Coke and the production was halted.

Shanghai Daily reported later that day that the supposedly contaminated drinks had been tested, and found to be safe.

See also Rebecca MacKinnon on ‘The Not-So-Great Firewall of China’ and Tania Branigan on microbloggers’ testing of China’s censors, via CDT.

April 18, 2012 3:52 PM
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