13 April 2012

Double standard? Freedom of rumor in free and unfree societies

The Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, a moderate Republican by today's standards, is outraged over the minor tempest generated when a blogger posted what apparently proved to be an unsubstantiated rumor about Gov. Haley of South Carolina, a Republican woman of Sikh descent, facing an indictment for tax fraud.

Some twit apparently thought it would be fun to start a rumor and see what happened next. We all know what happens: Indictments spread like wildfire; corrections couldn't roast a marshmallow. The damage took only a couple of hours. And Haley, a rising star in the Republican Party and a possible vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney, is all too aware of the potential cost to her reputation. She's been through this before. While she was running in the Republican primary for governor, two men stepped forward to claim sexual dalliances with the married mother of two.

Meanwhile, what Haley experienced as a target of the rumor mill should be of more general concern to everyone... What is abominably clear is that this sort of thing can happen to anyone at any time. And much worse things can be said that can't easily be disproved. 

We used to recognize rumors for what they are, but in the era of insta-everything, rumors get to enjoy enough time in the sunlight to make an imprint on the community psyche. Most disappointing during this particular cycle was the failure of legitimate news organizations to turn the rumor over and examine its underbelly before repeating it. What happened to a minimum of two corroborating sources before a story is posted?

I don't reproduce this to take it apart, because I don't really disagree with Parker's points. Nor will I accuse her of a double standard, because I don't know whether she's expressed an opinion on the story that came to my mind as soon as I read about Gov. Haley's trouble. I was reminded of Bo Xilai, the reputedly reactionary Communist Party boss of Chongqing, China, who has been purged amid rumors about his wife's involvement in the killing of a British businessman. Bo's story has been of interest to China-watchers in the U.S. news media mostly because of its repercussions for social media. Rumors have been flying online ever since Bo was sacked, but the Chinese government has been doing everything in its power, reportedly, to stamp them out. The implicit import of most American reports is that these attempts to suppress rumor-mongering are par for the Chinese course, part and parcel of the regime's systematic suppression of free political speech.

Again, the problem isn't with Kathleen Parker, since she didn't advocate a legal crackdown on the South Carolina rumor-monger. My point is that, with the names changed, her comments about the consequences for Gov. Haley of irresponsible rumor-mongering could probably be adapted by the Chinese Communists as an explanation for their efforts to censor rumor-mongering about Bo Xilai. Yet I'm sure most of Parker's readers wouldn't accept such an adaptation as justification for censorship. In the American case, like Parker, they would most likely emphasize the personal responsibility of news and social media players to check their facts and seek corroboration. But would they place any such burden of responsibility on Chinese bloggers and rumor-mongers? The temptation for Americans is always to see such people as truth-seekers or freedom fighters of some sort, on the assumption that the Communist regime, as a kind of dictatorship, is always wrong vis-a-vis freedom of speech. Were a Chinese state-media commentator to use the same language toward her native rumor-mongers that Parker used toward the South Carolina blogger -- she charged the "twit" with seeking the "idiot's delight" of buzz for "whatever little virtual temple he had erected for himself" -- most Americans who bothered to care would probably be outraged at the state's abusive language toward a citizen. Whether there could be a role for the state to play in halting the spread of slanderous rumors would not be considered unless Gov. Haley chose to sue the blogger. But an objective observer might conclude that both the Haley and the Bo case raise questions about the rights and responsibilities of social media, and the regulatory obligations of institutions and governments, that shouldn't be dismissed automatically on ideological grounds. Sometimes double standards are simply a matter of seeing similar phenomena as essentially different based on prejudices. Seeking similarities may be harder work, but doing so may steer us toward an objective viewpoint from which to seek the best interest of individuals and communities alike.


Anonymous said...

The real problem with rumours is belief. In the US today (perhaps the world), people accept what they want to believe as truth, whether it is true or not. So if a rumor is started about a politician, the opponents of that politician are likely to believe it because they want it to be true. It won't matter what evidence you provide to prove otherwise, they will still believe the rumour to be true.

Part of why I have come to the conclusion that the entire idea of "belief" needs to be completely squashed and eliminated from human usage.

Anonymous said...

And again, the entire problem I have with this is: lie. No human being should ever accept lies or those who spin them into their lives. No human being should support those who make a career of telling lies.

No one who listens to and accepts lies as truth, without even an attempt at verification, are a main root of the problems this planet faces.

Samuel Wilson said...

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "belief," except to guess that you mean it as a sort of synonym for "faith." But aren't values a matter of belief? When you espouse a vision of a good society, it's obviously not something you can verify except by making it happen. That's a different issue from the tendency you describe of people jumping to prejudicial conclusions, but when you write about extirpating "belief" entirely I wonder what else might be going out with the bathwater.

The more immeidate practical question is whether some authority should be authorized to treat rumors as lies. Americans clearly distrust any authority having the censorial power the Chinese have recently applied, but when does that distrust become distrust of the notion of truth itself?

Anonymous said...

I'm not advocating anything. Just pointing out a problem. As for "belief" or "faith" or whatever semantic tomfoolery you wish, it's the same thing . . . the acceptence of something as true or factual that cannot be proven to be true of factual. As for lie, I think we need not argue over that definition.