By Stephanie Szeto @stepszeto
I believe everyone has heard some kind of rumours, for example in school, at workplace or within friend circle. Since the development of Web 2.0 provided the interactive experience on Internet, the landscape of social networking is getting denser, more complex and participatory (Whittaker, Howarth, & Lymn, 2014). Rumours, at the same time, can be spread broader and quicker through social media than word of mouth (Bai, 2012). A marketing survey found that Facebook was the most popular social networking platform used by Hongkongers that 91% of the respondents used mainly Facebook and the largest age group of Facebook users was 25 to 34 with 55% female. The survey also found that Hongkongers seemed out of favour with traditional media and 44% of the respondents read Facebook for breaking news (Lam, 2014). By my own observation during the Umbrella Revolution, Facebook were the most prominent platform for Hongkongers to read, share and comment the breaking news, in addition, Internet rumours were also widely distributed.
On the first night of Umbrella Revolution, a message, de facto rumour, spread on Facebook that mobile network would be shut down by the Authority sparking the massive rush download of an app called FireChat which allowed mobile users to stay connected with each other through messages without using WiFi or mobile network (Hume & Park, 2014). This rumour freaked me out too and I
was one of those dreaded netizen to rush download FireChat. I rationalised my irrational behaviour by telling myself better safe than sorry. However, without clarified by the Authority, this Internet rumour was scotched because mobile network had never suspended. Yet, the Authority became the suspect to spread the rumour for threatening the protesters and anyone who wanted to flock to the protest sites by producing mass panic.
After that, another Internet rumour was going round about People’s Liberation Army would intervene in the movement. Although the Authority denied the possibility of the intervention, mass panic has been triggered by a mass transmitted derivative work of the Army’s tank on Facebook (Sin, 2014). Perhaps the Tank Man photo, taken during Tiananmen Square Protest in Beijing on 4th June 1989, has imprinted on Hongkongers’ mind, or Hongkongers’ distrust toward the Authority induced the trust of the rumours on Facebook (Bai, 2012). Unlike the older generation, I was too young to feel the impact on the bloody clearance of Tiananmen Square Protest, so I guess the younger generation may not take the Tank Man photo into account, but they tended to believe information on the Internet than the untrustworthy Authority.
Bai (2012) assumed that Chinese are vulnerable to rumour and Liu (2010) attributed this phenomenon to the tendency to use anecdote rathen than seek reliable information to differentiate rumours. But, what is the element to shape Chinese’s irrational behaviour? Gold (2002) suggested self-construal of Chinese may be the element. Living in the collectivistic society, Chinese emphasizes good interpersonal relationship, namely Guanxi network, so they are likely to conform to group members to keep group harmony. This explanation suggested two implications that 1) Chinese tend to believe and conform what in-group members say without criticizing or verifying the truth. 2) Chinese are likely to widely spread what have heard serving as information exchange purpose and hope others would share their information reciprocally. The conformity tendency and internalized interdependent self-construal may turn out leading Hongkongers to easily believe and spread Internet rumours during Umbrella Revolution, especially when they perceived the Authority was unreliable.