Media must snuff out the wildfire of rumors

By Chiou Tian-juh 邱天助  / 

Fri, Mar 13, 2015 - Page 8

After the hostage crisis at Kaohsiung Prison in Daliao District (大寮) ended in the suicide of the six inmates involved, all sorts of rumors began to spread. No one knew which were true and which were false and everyone was left scratching their heads.

Rumor is a common feature of social psychology. Recently in Taiwan, especially in political and entertainment circles, rumors have become unstoppable, like fire meeting bales of hay, as they are spread by the media, pundits, commentators and Internet users. Not only does it stop people from pursuing the truth, but it deprives many of their ability to think independently.

Gossip and rumor are an inevitable part of our lives. People engage in chats about matters on which they lack verified facts simply because they want to kill time, enhance their relationships with others, show their friendliness or avoid awkward silence. Psychologically, gossiping can also serve to relieve stress and anxiety.

However, even if the person passing on a rumor on has indicated to their listeners that what they are about to tell them is just hearsay, rumors are often distorted because some information is lost. During the process, the person disseminating a rumor often dramatizes the story and emphasizes the parts that most interest or impress them, while the rest of the information might be neglected. The process then repeats itself when the rumor is disseminated again.

Furthermore, when the information is passed on, people often remember only parts of the information. Many specific details are omitted, which “levels” the information, making it shorter and more concise and thus easier to remember and disseminate. In addition, during the process of dissemination, the person receiving the information often interprets it based on their own viewpoint, ideology and beliefs, and then embellishes it based on their own perceptions.

Even though many rumors are recognized as only rumor by rational, reasonable people, later events sometimes reveal there is substance to them. Thus, it is clearly not accurate to say that all rumors are false. Regardless of the situation, rumors should not be regarded as pure evil or a conspiracy. They are just strange stories that deviate from the facts which are brought about by conscious or unconscious social behavior.

However, when rumors spread, they are frequently mixed with imagination, value judgements and expectations, while many details that could facilitate the understanding of the truth are omitted. These omissions are not a result of a failing memory, but rather a kind of system error. Hence, when a report is filled with rumor, it is almost impossible to say what the fundamental facts are, or indeed if the report is based on fact at all.

The Internet is a fertile ground for rumor. However, what determines how rumor spreads is not the platforms on which they spread, but the minds of the people who spread them. They are the ones playing the leading role in controlling the scale of a rumor, how much information gets changed and how big its influence will be.

It is understandable to have concerns about the effects rumors might have on society, especially when so many reports in the nation’s newspapers and magazines are filled with rumor, and many political talk shows have become centers for broadcasting rumor.

As the conscience of society, the media cannot only disseminate rumor. Reporters should do their duty to find evidence to verify the stories and look for traces of truth. They must not follow the trend of rumor-telling and spreading baseless information, which will only turn society into a world of gossip.

Chiou Tian-juh is a professor of social psychology at Shih Hsin University.

Translated by Ethan Zhan