Rumor, Lies, and Weibo: How Social Media is Changing the Nature of Truth in China

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? In the days immediately after Bo's removal from his Chongqing office, for example, Internet rumors about his misdeeds circulated freely, in what many suspect was a state effort to build public knowledge of his corruption and turn people against him. 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.

This hall-of-mirrors system can be confusing even for the officials who run it, and social media consumers are not the only people in China who can confuse truth and rumor. Last February, as protest movements stormed the Middle East, starting with the "Jasmine revolution" in Tunisia, a crowd gathered quietly in central Beijing after anonymous calls for their own Jasmine protests. The small crowd was outnumbered by skittish police, not to mention a number of Western reporters. Both groups had also caught the rumor and responded swiftly.

The movement was ended before it had really started, but it continued to ripple through the life of common Chinese citizens in ways its initiators had probably not expected. In the next months, although few or no protesters actually gathered and there seemed to be little momentum for an Arab Spring-style movement, the government seemed to take the social media mumblings far more seriously than the actual activists. Streets were blocked and plainclothes police were stationed at shopping malls and movie theaters every few hundred of feet. Security officials detained dozens of leading activists, including artist Ai Weiwei, in apparent fear of their stirring further unrest, and threatened foreign journalists for reporting on the incident. When Chinese people realized the word "jasmine" was blocked from the Internet and from text messages, though euphemisms for the word were now well-known, and the flower was banned at Beijing botanic markets, the news of the pseudo-revolution had reached a wide public. The government, in its effort to quell the rumor, had ballooned it into an alternate version of truth. Their over-reaction had communicated the rumors of a revolution far more powerfully than had the actual rumors or its proponents.

The tug-of-war between the government and the people over truth and rumor happens every day in today's China. The rise of social media has made the struggle harder and the stakes higher. The night the government announced the charges against Bo Xilai, a crowd of thousands gathered in Chongqing and clashed with local police. The government vigorously denied any connection between the incident and Bo's expulsion, meanwhile moving to delete relevant messages and photos from Weibo. The Chinese web users reveling in the role of social networking sites in revealing the Bo scandals once again fell into debates, while others have been reflecting on larger questions. "Why does the U.S. not censor rumors?" asked one Weibo user last November. "No matter how wild they are, nobody bans them, and the creators of rumors do not worry about getting arrested. Perhaps for places where truth persists, rumors have no harm. Only places that lack truth are fearful of rumors."

Had the censors tried to look for the original writer of this message, they would not have found him or her. The name is lost amid millions of others, who forward the message after each round of rumor-clearing seizes Weibo in a state-run information purge that can never quite keep up.

Presented by

Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

Just In