On the Technical Advancements and Instrumentalization of Rumor


The quality of information matters immensely in situations like this. I want to briefly direct your attention to an opinion piece on the Scientific American written by Dr. Bill Hanage and Dr. Marc Lipsitch, both great epidemiologists at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. They did a great job dissecting and categorizing different types of information.

In short, there are three categories of information about an outbreak of a communicable disease:

(A) what we know is true; (B) what we think is true—fact-based assessments that also depend on inference, extrapolation or educated interpretation of facts that reflect an individual’s view of what is most likely to be going on; and (C) opinions and speculation.

And of course, if I may add, there’s another category of information: rumor.

Wikipedia explains rumor as “a tall tale of explanations of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event, or issue in public concern.” However, in the context of Chinese language and the age of internet-driven public opinion, rumor possesses more of a derogatory meaning here in China. It is generally used to categorize information that is not fact-based, but rather invented out of thin air or manufactured for numerous purposes—be them simply trolling around, or more conscious ones.

Rumor in the Chinese context is often baseless speculations that are lacking in trustworthy source and hard for average readership to do their own fact-checking. That’s a big difference compared to what I perceived as the western people’s understanding towards rumor, which is mostly neutral. Keep in mind that I’m only going to talk about rumor in the Chinese context in this essay.

What I was pleased to see is that Chinese people are finally showing signs that they are fed up with these baseless rumor, and are more cautious than ever about their information intake. However, I’ve began to see two advanced versions of rumor beginning to circulate and people are still falling for them.

The first is forged statements claimed to have come from prestigious sources containing baseless claims that, upon first hear, sound kind of legit.

One example is the rumor of “holding your breath for 10 sec to check if you are infected with Covid-19”, believed to be originated from an Indian entertainment website, citing that it proves that if you can, then you don’t have pulmonary fibrosis. This one, or more specifically, the Chinese translated version, had been circulating quite well among my Chinese friends in the U.S.