Last April, after China’s Communist Party Central Committee called on cadres to crack down on what they deemed subversive forces within Chinese society, users of social media platforms there found themselves subjected to a firehouse of propaganda aimed at stemming the tide of Internet “rumours.” Rampant online speculation, officials claimed, was harming the economy, the state and the Chinese people. Shortly afterward, in September, Vietnam passed a law restricting commentary by users in that country on social media platforms like Facebook (which the communist government there unofficially blocks, without much success) to only their personal lives, prohibiting them from engaging in idle “gossip” on the Internet regarding news or political developments.
Widespread denunciations of both crackdowns surged through the international press. Most cited the timeless ideals of (Western) social contracts: the inviolable right to freedom of expression, the marketplace of ideas, sunshine as the best disinfectant, and the many other rationales regularly trotted out under such circumstances, each rooted in Enlightenment-Era principles espoused by bewigged dead European men. All were passionately argued, and all were studiously ignored by Vietnamese and Chinese officials, who give exactly as many hoots for what the Wal-Mart shopping denizens of America and the U.K think as they do for one brand of marmite over another: exactly zero.
Now, the churn of Internet rumours and speculation attending the mystery surrounding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has prompted officials in China — and Malaysia and Vietnam and Singapore and Indonesia and a slew of other potentially affected nations in the region to once again begin beating the drum on the subject of rumours: on their dastardlyness, their uselessness, their depravity, their certainty to “obstruct” the investigation (as if the presumably non-rumour following crack teams in Malaysia have not done enough of that on their own).
“Now, the churn of online speculation surrounding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has prompted officials to once again begin beating the drum on the subject of rumours.”
“We do not want to create confusion for the public,” Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek argued. “Events in the past few days have shown that spreading false news and information has a disastrous impact on the [search and rescue] effort.”
Just prior to last week’s purging of several dozen outspoken and popular commentators on the hot new mobile app WeChat, on March 10, Sina news portal gnashed its teeth over the proclivity of self-media to spread “misinformation,” singling out rumours involving the Beijing-bound Malaysian airliner as particularly pernicious. The article fumed, “apart from still having no information about the flight, what is making families mentally and physically exhausted are the Internet rumours.”
And writing at Tech in Asia last week, Thai reporter Saiyai Sakawee took mainstream media outlets to task for jumping on speculation regarding the missing aircraft as mere click-generating linkbait. Sakawee also fired off a cannonade at ordinary social media users and online influencers, whom he claimed have a special responsibility at all times to not engage in speculation. “Everyone needs to think before they share,” he lectured. “Since you are what you tweet, let’s make it our responsibility to not spread rumours and be accountable for what we say.”
“Since you are what you tweet, let’s make it our responsibility to not spread rumours and be accountable for what we say.”
Western intellectuals can be forgiven for sniffing at such sentiments. After all, rumour-mongering is a sacred national pastime in the U.S. and many pluralist democracies, where the marketplace of ideas is enshrined as a bedrock foundation of the republic and the cure-all fix for offensive speech is generally understood to be more speech, not less. A blanket ban on speculation would topple entire media empires in America and much of Europe, and the resulting tsunami of unemployable pundits, hacks, and prognosticators inundating the Western hemisphere might very well bring about another global financial crisis.
The strength of the Asian longing for social harmony is difficult for most outsiders to grasp, as is their seeming eagerness to forfeit what we consider an unalienable right to vouchsafe it. But as deeply ingrained as the sharing of scuttlebutt is among human beings everywhere — especially collectivist-minded Asians — the Internet has elevated what used to be a form of communication best appreciated in spoken form to what may be its perfect archetype, which inevitably creates friction with other equally cherished characteristics of many Asian societies.
“The Internet has elevated what used to be a form of communication best appreciated in spoken form to what may be its perfect archetype.”
Malaysia’s Communications Minister, for instance, said last week, “It is better for us to let the professional parties handle this matter, including sourcing and obtaining detailed information using various methods available so that we can get something that is really authentic.” While this sort of statement, coming from a Western official, would likely have set off a firestorm of sputtering indignation among the Twitterati, for most Malaysians, and probably for many others within the geographic bullseye the world has been watching for the past 10 days, the hierarchy he implicitly referred to is as fundamental and necessary to Malaysian society as Islam and nasi goreng. In any contest between the ladder of authority and the people’s right to speculate publicly there, an appeal to authority has the power of a bull’s nose ring. One tug reminds everyone who’s boss.
At the same time, actions speak louder than words, and the esteemed authorities in Malaysia so far have not exactly given citizens there, or in China, much confidence that “professional parties” are themselves doing anything more than putting random questions to a box of Magic 8-Balls in a back room of the communications centre in Kuala Lumpur. The breathtaking displays of incompetence, confusion, and lack of coordination on the Malaysian side of the investigation into flight MH370 is surely responsible for generating more rumours and speculation than any number of online influencers.
Western societies also appear much more likely to hold official media outlets to account than they are rogue citizens sharing pet theories on their Facebook pages. From where we’re standing, there’s a clear difference between serious media outlets “reporting” by repeating baseless Internet speculation, for lack of anything else to report, and what Courtney Love is doing in her expansive free time. That, again, is a bone-deep bit of programming traceable back to the Founding Fathers’ fathers, who had learned the hard way never to trust The Man. But millennia before Locke and Voltaire, Confucius was preaching a different gospel, one that held the masses are as children to the wise leaders, and must be cared for as such. Mistakes can be forgiven in a parent, but a child who’s mouthing off needs a good slap.
“There’s a clear difference betweenserious media outlets “reporting” by repeating baseless Internet speculation, for lack of anything else to report, and what Courtney Love is doing in her expansive free time.”
Traditionally conservative Asian societies are only slowly, grudgingly, adjusting to the new reality of an empowered citizenry who can speak their minds in a global public forum with the ease of a tweet or a status update. Western notions of citizen journalism will continue to be derided as “rumour-mongering” elsewhere, especially among those with a ken for comforting hierarchies who are now feeling threatened by a population of millions with a power previously limited only to those in power. It won’t happen overnight, that’s certain, although the sad affair of missing Flight MH370 may be a watershed moment for citizen-based speculation in Asia, whether by that you mean citizen journalism or good, old-fashioned gossip. After all, as Oscar Wilde observed, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.