However, as an associate professor of anthropology in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Joseph Bosco has a more neutral view of rumours. “Rumours are also attempts to get at the truth. So you tend to have rumours where people don’t know precisely what’s going on and the situation is really serious,” Bosco says.
Bosco explains that rumours occur because there is uncertainty and because they resonate with our social values. He says in the Umbrella Movement, rumours arise because the government is not transparent and the police do not announce their actions. Out of anxiety and the social values against violence, people spread rumours in order to get the truth. He says rumours actually provide possibilities for people to calculate what they may face and how much they are willing to be engaged in a movement.
“We all spread rumours,” Bosco says, “It’s not because people are not responsible or evil, it’s just part of the communication.”
Bosco sees rumours as a part of exchanging information but he thinks the media should investigate them to see the extent to which they are true and report them accordingly. He says some rumours can turn out to be true and he trusts experienced journalists to handle them appropriately.
Although rumours can be true, their negative impact, such as misleading organisers as well as the public in social movements, cannot be neglected and there are those who are trying to figure out a solution to minimise the harm. Chris Shen Fei, an assistant professor of media and communication from the City University of Hong Kong, points out that misinformation is very common in political campaigns. “Wherever there is politics, there is misinformation,” he says.
Rumours seem to be very difficult to stop. In China, there is a law forbidding the spread of rumours. However, imprisonment cannot stop rumours from flying around once they spread.
Shen believes Hong Kong can learn from the Fact Check project set up by the University of Pennsylvania and Annenberg School of Communication. Funded by donations, it employs scholars and journalists to check and monitor the factual accuracy of news and information released every day by politicians and news outlets.
Shen says universities in Hong Kong should also take up this role as they are generally politically neutral and have abundant intellectual resources. But he concedes it would require a lot of funds to set up. “Here [in Hong Kong], it’s difficult to find money. The money itself can be politicised, and then the organisation will be polluted if it has a political agenda.”
Still, Shen believes the system is worth trying and would be beneficial to Hong Kong as it would raise media literacy in the general public and lift the quality of local journalism. “I think that would be a contribution to society, to Hong Kong democracy,” he says.
By Elaine Tsang