From “Word of Mouth” to “Word of Mouse”: Rumor Evolvement and Refutation on the Chinese Internet

Ran Liu, a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses the role of rumor in Chinese social media.

On March 15th, 2014, a message was posted on Sina Weibo, the most popular micro-blog service website in China, revealing shocking news about the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370:

From Russian Media: MH 370 is now hidden at a U.S. military base in the Indian Ocean! According to an anonymous source from the Russian military, MH 370 is now hidden in a hangar at the U.S. Indian Ocean base. The hangar was built two years ago and can perfectly accommodate big planes. The U.S. government did this to blackmail China not to ally with Russia.

Of course, this was a false rumor without any supporting evidence. Within five hours, however, this message had been reposted more than 14,000 times and commented on over 5,000 times before the official Weibo manager “Rumor Refuter” finally announced it as misinformation. More than two months later, there were still Weibo users excitingly reposting the original rumor, insisting that it was a true story.

Rumor has existed in society for a long time, however, the rise of information communication technology, the popularization of the internet, and the emergence of social networking services have increased rumor diffusion potential to an unprecedented level. Online rumors under authoritarian regimes may encounter a different set of circumstances from those in democratic countries. On one hand, newly emerged communication channels provide more opportunities for information diffusion where freedom of speech is restricted; on the other hand, while “word-of-mouth” rumors are difficult to trace, “word-of-mouse” rumors leave permanent records that can be used against their creators and disseminators.


The Study of Rumors

In the social sciences, a rough consensus has been met regarding the meaning of rumor. The consensus emphasizes rumor’s ambiguity and method of dissemination. Knapp (1944) proposes a widely accepted definition that rumor is a specific proposition disseminated without official verification. Allport and Postman (1947) agree that rumor is a specific proposition for a belief that lacks clear evidence, spreading from person to person, usually by “word of mouth”.

Scholars have attached various social functions and implications to rumor, claiming that rumor conveys important information that communicates truth (Allport & Postman, 1947), forms “improvised news” that fills in the information blanks during important events (Shibutani, 1966), relieves personal anxiety and situational uncertainty (DiFonzo & Bordia, 2007), and serves as a complementary medium depicting a fact that differs from an untrusted official story (Kapferer, 1990). Rumor can also become a politically powerful force that leads to serious social consequences, as evidenced by Knapp’s recommendations for rumor control during World War II.

With the rapid development of information and communication technology, “word-of-mouth” has become outdated, and new channels of rumor dissemination are emerging. Some of the basic conditions of rumor diffusion have changed; for example, while “word of mouth” transmission tends to create accidental distortions and misunderstanding, online rumors spread through more reliable channels with explicitly worded messages. This difference may mean that the evolvement of online rumors will follow a different path than conventional rumors.


Online Rumors in the Chinese Context

 The word “Yao-yan” (谣言) in Chinese has a slightly different meaning from “rumor.” Literally, yao means folk-lore, and yan means words; therefore, yao-yan represents words coming from unofficial channels. The word yao-yan itself, however, usually carries a negative connotation in modern Chinese: most of the time, it refers to false, rather than unverified, information.

 Among all the internet services for information dissemination, micro-blogs are an increasingly popular service for information dissemination in China. Once the potential social and political influence of micro-blogs was recognized, the Chinese government gradually started to exert control and censorship on such platforms. As a result, “preventing false rumors from spreading and maintaining social order” has become a powerful justification for the government to persecute political dissidents using micro-blogging platforms.

On September 9, 2013, building on existing criminal law, the Supreme People’s Court of PRC and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate of PRC jointly issued “The Interpretation on Several Issues Concerning the Application of the Law in Handling Cases of Using Information Networks to Commit Defamation and Other such Criminal Offences.” This judicial interpretation rules that internet users who fabricate rumors can be held accountable and sentenced to jail.

In the new Interpretation, if a certain online rumor is defined as “defamation or slandering of other people” and is “clicked or viewed at least 5000 times, or forwarded at least 500 times”, it will fulfill the conditions of “serious circumstances.” Thus the sentence outlined in Article 246 of The Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, which refers to punishment for defamation of character,can be applied to the user who posts or reposts the rumor.  In this way, the Interpretation creates a precarious situation for all internet users in China who may unintentionally contribute to the spread of a rumor.

The Interpretation, however, has not intimidated Chinese micro-blog users from spreading rumors. The official account called “Rumor Refuter” on Sina Weibo has announced twenty-three influential rumors in the first season of 2014, most of which emerged during the search for Malaysia Airline Flight MH370 and the unexpected terrorist attack at Kunming Train Station. One possible explanation for the spread of these rumors is that Weibo users who spread misinformation through truly believed the original posts. They could have not realized that spreading the message may bring criminal charges. Some rumors, however, seem highly ridiculous and further exploration on the true reaction from micro-blog users is essential for understanding the dynamics of the transmission process.

Besides legal approaches, micro-blog service providers such as Sina Weibo have also been cooperating with the Chinese government to deal with rumor dissemination. They can directly delete messages that are identified as rumors, punish users producing and forwarding rumors by blocking their accounts for days or even permanently shut them down, or keep the rumors but mark them as “untrue information” to warn other users exposed to them. The government also tries to disseminate counter information through official micro-blog accounts to directly refute rumors. At the same time, non-governmental institutions and individuals are actively refuting online rumors. Grassroots popular science website is one such institution, (and has refuted rumors such as.

If rumor is defined as “improvised news” that emerges because of lack of trust in official channels, the effectiveness of rumor refutation efforts from official channels is questionable. Why would people accept official rumor refutation messages if they have already chosen to believe in alternative news sources? In an authoritarian regime that lacks freedom of speech, this may be a prominent question in the exploration of the social consequences that result when influential news sources lose credibility.



Allport, G. W., & Postman, L. (1947). The Psychology of Rumor. New York, NY: Russell & Russell.

DiFonzo, N., & Bordia, P. (2007). Rumor, Gossip and Urban Legends. Diogenes, 54, 19–35. doi:10.1177/0392192107073433

Kapferer, J.-N. (1990). Rumors. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Knapp, R. H. (1944). A Psychology of Rumor. Public Opinion Quarterly, 8, 22–37.

Shibutani, T. (1966). Improvised News. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill educational publishing.


Featured photo: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by J. Schreier

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