Friday, September 9, 2011

China Fears ‘Toxic’ Rumours

Via The Diplomat -

No governments have ever succeeded in banning rumours. But that hasn’t stopped many from trying. The latest to do so is Beijing. Irked by what it deems as malicious rumours spread through the Internet, and microblogs in particular, the Chinese government has recently announced a crackdown on the so-called ‘toxic’ Internet rumours.

The immediate triggers of China’s latest crackdown were most likely related to the outpouring of public outrage on the Internet over the crash of two high-speed trains in late July, and to the role played by the Internet in mobilizing the protest by residents of Dalian that forced the local government to promise to relocate a (truly) toxic petrochemical complex.

But the Chinese authorities also seem to have good reason to attempt the impossible – the advent of the Internet and microblogs has now greatly amplified the impact of rumours. On occasion, rumours have led to tragedies and riots. In one incident that occurred in the early hours of February 10 this year, for instance, rumours that a chemical plant in Xiangshui county in Jiangsu Province was about to explode sent more than ten thousand local residents into a panicked flight. Four people died and many were injured in the resulting traffic accidents.

Based on previous records of rumour-suppression, China’s latest crackdown doesn’t look promising. The reason isn’t that Beijing lacks the muscle or resolve – Chinese censors are hardworking servants of the state and can be counted on to devise ingenious measures to combat rumours. But fighting rumours in the Chinese social and political contexts requires much more than relentless censorship. First and foremost, Chinese leaders worried about the harmful effects of rumours must understand that the influence of rumours is directly and positively correlated with the lack of press freedom and the decline of government credibility. In other words, in a society ruled by an authoritarian regime that tolerates little freedom of the press, but which has an incentive structure that encourages its officials to fabricate critical data (such as GDP growth, inflation, and housing prices) and cover up accidents and communicable diseases, rumours are bound to flourish.

Indeed, when we compare how rumours fare in autocracies and democracies, the difference is huge. To be sure, rumours are concocted and spread in all societies. But those ruled by autocratic elites are far more vulnerable to their impact because these societies have no independent and free press that enjoys public confidence and can quickly discredit rumours through their fact-based reporting. In democracies, rumours can seldom cause mass panic or riots because a free press quickly acts as an antidote.

So a long-term and more effective measure to contain the harm of rumours in China is to allow greater press freedom. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

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