… and it ends with Revelations

Yesterday, I heard a rumor and a comment about that rumor, which have me thinking about the importance and fluidity of “reputation” in the absence of any trusted news media and the concomitant rise of weibo as a news source.

The rumor: because the Municipality overspent its universiade budget, this year small businesses will be taxed excessively in order to make up the difference. Apparently, small businesses have been targeted because they are the most vulnerable to government intervention. Private individuals have already been taxed and cannot be taxed again without causing unrest and large, state and/or foreign owned companies all have governmental connections and (in the case of foreign companies) China’s agreements to uphold its tax laws. In contrast, small business owners only have the government connections that they have made through bribes and schmoozing. Moreover, small business owners tend to swim alone, rather than organizing which means that they have neither collective bargaining power, nor use access to public media to air their grievances. Instead, they complain to friends, who in turn, pass the rumor along over tea and snacks with friends.

The comment: It’s difficult to confirm anything in China because important decisions, or rather, the justifications for important decisions aren’t documented and released into the public sphere because anything that can be written down isn’t the total story. My friend then explained that this is why she no longer reads newspapers for news. Instead, she reads newspapers to get a sense of government winds and reads weibo and blogs for news reports. But, when pressed, she also admitted that she doesn’t completely trust weibo or blogs. Instead, she evaluates (based on her experience) the likelihood of a report being true. And she’s aware that different personal experiences will make some people more or less likely to trust a particular report. 

The importance of reputation: My friends use rumors to make decisions about their lives and evaluate their environment. Consequently, the reputation of the speaker and the relationship of the speaker to the rumor are key aspects in evaluating the “likelihood” quotient of a rumor. Two related points. First, a reputation ranges from deep (developed over years of intimacy) to shallow (developed on the basis of one tweet). In practice, this means that in Shenzhen, people are more likely to trust the experience of an intimate when evaluating a rumor and their own experience when evaluating the validity of a tweet. However, it also means that more and more people are developing intimate trust with people they have only met through tweets. Second, the claim of experience – “I was there”, “This is what happened to me” – blurs the difference between the rumor and its reporter. In practice, this means believing or disbelieving a rumor based on “my experience” is also a comment on the integrity of the reporter. Consequently, sharing rumors creates, sustains, and measures trust within intimate relationships, even as these processes have been displaced and reconfigured by online news communities, such as weibo.

The fluidity of reputation: Shenzhen reputations come and go with events (who might have the authority to speak on a particular topic) and the importance of these events to variously positioned inhabitants (who care deeply about the price of pork, for example, and not so much about unfair taxes unless they have been targeted to help supplement the universiade coffers). Here, three points.

  1. Most Shenzhen inhabitants share rumors within variously thick and thin intimacies across common interests. Even rumor mongers seem to reach rumor overload and thus, manage their news gathering through habitual conversations (at the office over tea) and visits to weibo (while on the bus or subway or in a meeting). Therefore, events tend to intrude on, but not reshape news gathering habits.
  2. In this context, the work of public intellectuals becomes articulating positions that allow people with different interests to understand themselves as part of some totality, preferably with an eye to a more egalitarian society. And there’s the rub: these positions aren’t often all that immediately relevant and/or interesting when we are overworked or lonely or simply shooting the breeze with intimate friends.
  3. In Shenzhen, weibo reports and rumors gain credence for two, not necessarily related reasons. First, traditional news media are slower than weibo and thus, weibo reports have the authority of both personal experience and temporal immediacy. Second, most Shenzhen inhabitants (like my friends) use traditional news media for information other than news (the direction of governmental winds, for example). So yes, the lack of trust in public news media has made rumors and weibo seem more reliable than they may actually be. But then again, who knows?

Final speculation: a belief in and the compulsion to reveal the truth animates rumor mills and weibo broadcasts. Many in Shenzhen despair of living in a reliable and trustworthy society. Indeed, the assumption that the truth remains hidden (except from intimates and immediate participants in any given event) permeates most social interactions, making trust one of the highest social values precisely because no matter what else we might believe, we know this much is true: only a fool gives her trust lightly.

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