Sep 15, 2013 09:20 AM

Rumors and the Power of Deception

When Internet rumors whizz through cyberspace, one simply can't be oblivious to the information that is provided by the authorities. Often times the origins of false information on officials comes from officials themselves. Recently, the state-run Xinhua News Agency attempted to explain the phenomenon of "official rumors" in hopes that the government agencies can reconsider their approach in dealing with the release of information to the public.

The actions of the state-backed Xinhua are laudable inasmuch as they have been a reflection of public demand. Many Internet users have raised the question themselves: There is much disinformation on the Internet which may potentially affect social stability. But how is the false information from the officials and government agencies to be assessed?

A good example is the Liu Tienan case. Launched in August, the corruption probe over Liu, the head of the National Energy Administration (NEA) was the subject of many rumors months before the official announcement.  Prior to official statements made by the government, the NEA branded all news regarding the investigation on Liu as "nonsense," and "pure slander." The NEA later went on to say they would take legal action against anyone found repeating false rumors. However, when Liu's criminal investigation was officially made public, the NEA did not retract any of these statements.

However, if we look at the whole country, similar cases are not rare. It appears government officials have the right to lie and the public has become inured to such practices. This is an unspoken rule.

There should be zero tolerance to rumors released by officials.

Strictly speaking, there are distinctions to be made between the online rumors and false official information. It may be the case that few officials disseminate false information, but official rumors are defined as falsehoods which originate with the government. There are mainly two types of lies from officials; the first is a lie from higher authorities which can be understood as complete fabrication. The second is the soft lie to the public and official subordinates. What Xinhua compiled is among the second type which involves official denials and the release of spun information.

In many Western countries, telling an out-an-out lie can carry a high cost. U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton can attest to how various forms of exaggeration, blurring and the deliberate fabrication of facts can grossly mislead the public and end the careers of politicians.

But why are officials accustomed to lie to the public? The most important factor is the low risk to telling a lie. Under the Chinese laws, government employees are not permitted to spread falsehoods: "Civil servants must observe codes of discipline, with the following acts prohibited: fraudulent, misleading and deceptive statements to the public." However, the punishments for such violations are very limited. If stricter punishments can be applied to officials that provide false information to the public, then the likelihood of official rumors will vastly decrease.

An official can refuse to comment, but only true statements should be made to the public. Adhering to this should not be so difficult.

The author is a columnist for 21st Century Business Herald and Beijing News

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