Busting the Bias of the Rumor Busters

China Media Project translates an interview from Time Weekly with new media scholar Hu Yong about the definition of rumors, and the so-called “anti-rumor league,” a group of “truth-seeking vigilantes” who seek to counter rumor-mongering on China’s microblogs:

Time Weekly: Recently the problem of “rumors” on microblogs has become something of a concentrated phenomenon and has drawn a lot of controversy. How should we view the relationship between rumor and microblogs?

Hu Yong: Actually, rumors are a very old form of language, with a strong word-of-mouth character to them. In some sense, in the internet age we’ve seen the return you might say of some forms of communication in the past. Microblogs particularly resemble village markets where everyone mills around and the threshold for speaking is quite low. This kind of media form is actually extremely suited to the spread of rumor and hearsay. The transmission chain is short, the speed rapid, and the scope wide. And so, it’s fundamentally impossible to completely get rid of rumor on microblogs.

Time Weekly: Well then, owing to the special characteristics of microblogs, we can’t see all nonfactual information as rumor. We need to separate “inaccurate information” (错误的信息) from “manufactured information” (捏造的信息), in which the former is erroneous (讹) and the latter is rumor (谣). But I’ve noticed that even some journalists don’t always differentiate between what is “erroneous” and what is “rumor,” but simply talk about all nonfactual information as “rumor.”

Hu Yong That’s right. This certainly happens, and it’s important to recognize the difference. But we need to point out further that if we simply define “rumor” as subjective and deliberate fabrication (观故意的捏造) and then add to this judgement about motives, this is really problematic. Put another way, the reason the “anti-rumor league” has invited so much controversy is because many people believe that they often make conjectures about the motives of those they focus on.

People generally assume that rumor is fabrication, and then suppose that it involves some sort of nefarious purpose. It never occurs to them that rumor is not necessarily in and of itself pure fiction, that there might be a particle of truth. I’m personally very opposed to the idea of ascribing motive in the definition of rumor. We all know that the ascription of motive (动机论) or the attacking of others in argument on the basis of assumed motive (诛心论) have a longstanding and well-established history in China. In the process of verbal exchange, or in the process of discourse and argumentation, we often don’t direct our language toward the conduct or language of the other, but rather directly criticize the other — why did they say what they did, why did they act in that way. We make conjectures about the motives of the other. This kind of motive ascription as a way of thinking is actually the greatest obstacle to reasonable discussion, and in many cases its interest is actually throttling freedom of expression.


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