Confusion Generates False Rumors

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Confusion Generates False Rumors

Rumors Mushroom When the Truth Remains Shrouded

A society in a state of confusion is especially susceptible to wild rumors. The degree of social turmoil also determines the nature of rumors. For instance, rumors about entertainers suffering from some terrible, incurable disease are, in a way, innocuous. Celebrity entertainers crave any kind of publicity, even a negative one, since their careers depend on public interest. The circulation of false rumors is sometimes a necessary vice for entertainers to maintain their popularity.

Unlike these relatively harmless rumors, the ones involving social leaders have a lethal impact on social unity.

Let''s suppose a rumor starts to spread that a certain company is not on the government''s blacklist of liquidation because a certain politician or government official is looking after its interest. This type of rumor not only sullies the reputation of the implicated individuals, it also erodes public confidence in government policies and ultimately generates social confusion.

What is needed by the leader of a society is not the management skill to maintain his popularity but the ability to set model behavior for the people to follow. When there is public approval, ordinary people will trust and follow their leadership.

It is pointless to yearn for a society without false rumors. Rumors, to a certain degree, exist across all ages and societies.

This is not to say that we can do nothing about them. There is an unexpectedly simple solution to dispel rumors. All it takes is to tell the truth. A rumor dissipates immediately, when it is clearly proven that it is, in fact, nothing but a rumor. But it grows and mushrooms like a malignant growth when the truth remains shrouded.

If unfounded rumors could be subdued by police surveillance, we have to ask ourselves why all the dictatorial regimes in all ages and countries have been toppled in the end.

Every despot kept a powerful police force to crack down on rumors disadvantageous to his rule. Dictatorships would have lasted forever if it were possible to eliminate rumors without reforming the structural conditions that gave rise to them in the first place.

A dictatorship that conceals the truth becomes a hotbed of all kinds of rumors. The Korean police recently announced a plan to keep a rigid control on rumors. Could this be true in a country ruled by President Kim Dae-jung, advocate of human rights and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize? We can only hope that it was just a feeble attempt at a joke.

The root cause of the various types of rumors spreading in Korean society today is the utter chaos in state administration. Let''s look at some of the rumors the police indicated they would try to bridle: "The economy is in a crisis because the government is only focusing on North Korea issues," and "It is really true that an opposition lawmaker called the ruling party a subsidiary of North Korea''s Workers'' Party."

Actually, the above examples cannot even be counted as rumors. They could be merely exaggerated accounts of what a considerable number of the people feel about the government''s North Korea policy. If so, all the government needs to do is explain its North Korea policy and try to convince the people why it was necessary to adopt the policy.

If the government has any confidence in its policies, it should offer background information on how it came to formulate them, and appeal for the public''s support. If it is uncertain of convincing the people, then it should shelve the policies. The government has to persuade and gain the understanding of the opposition and the people by sharing all pertinent information and the truth in a transparent manner.

We can learn an important lesson on coping with rumors through the series of incidents that recently took place on the Internet. Let''s look at the way they developed.

First, a rumor started to circulate: a videotaped account of so and so engaged in a certain act is available on an Internet adult site. Next, people tried to confirm the rumor: I saw so and so doing such and such on the Internet, haven''t you seen it yet? This was the moment when the rumor turned into a fact. The so and so''s explanation - pop singer Baek Ji-young, in this case - was most crucial at this point.

She held a press conference, explained she had nothing to do with the distribution of the video showing her having sex, which was loaded on the Web without her knowledge, and she therefore is a victim. She managed to salvage her dignity and pride by sharing specific information honestly and transparently with the people.

The rumor vanished, and so-called cyber terrorism by unethical people taking advantage of the anonymity granted by the Internet to disclose details of the private lives of others became a hot issue. And rightly so, because it is indeed a serious social problem that needs thorough discussions and appropriate countermeasures.

What can we look forward to from a government that copes with rumors far less effectively than a pop singer did?

The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.

by Lew Seok-choon

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