Wild rumors feed on distrust

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Wild rumors feed on distrust


A number of rumors spread after the Sewol ferry tragedy. There were theories that the ferry had collided with a U.S. submarine, that the rescue ship arrived late to delay operations, and that authorities intentionally excluded civilian divers. And the police investigated the text messages shared on social networking sites that some claimed were sent by students inside the ship.

In “The Sociology of Rumors,” Ikutaro Shimizu argues that “hunger” and “lack of information” make the perfect conditions for false information. People grow hungry to learn the truth, especially when uncertainties exist. Then rumors fill in the missing pieces. They are created when people need information or knowledge, but existing reports are unsatisfactory.

Nicholas DiFonzo provides a similar analysis in “The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors.”

“Uncertainty thrives as a result of secrecy and lack of reliable data,” he says.

The Sewol ferry tragedy is a national catastrophe. But from the beginning, uncertainty and ambiguity prevailed. We were relieved to hear that all passengers were rescued, only to learn later that it was inaccurate. For the next few days, the number of passengers remained unverified. When the disaster occurred, the announcements from authorities only added to the confusion and anxiety and did little to help people understand the situation.

Rumors filled that vacuum. They reflected the public’s fury. “The Watercooler Effect” claims that the main reason people believe rumors is because “the listener is in a psychological place where he wants to accept the hearsay.”

Individuals find reasons to justify their animosity. People felt frustrated by the inefficiency and incompetence of the government, as revealed in the rescue operation and the officials’ initial response immediately after the accident, and groundless rumors spread as a result of that frustration.

Rumors are evil because they encroach on social trust. Just as we saw after the sinking of the Cheonan four years ago, “faithful distrust” to counter sporadic facts with conspiracy is inevitable. Even truth is lost in the face of rumors. “When the truth is revealed after rumors spread, half of truth will be unfortunately lost” (The Sociology of Rumors).

However, what’s just as frustrating as rumors are the conditions that create those rumors. The Ministry of Security and Public Administration and the Korean Coast Guard shifted responsibility to each other when it came to the number of passengers, and the Sewol ferry disaster revealed the corruption and practice of revolving-door appointments rampant in Korea’s shipping industry. Bureaucrats took photos and welcomed ministers where families of the victims and missing passengers were gathered. Unless the bureaucratic society that created this distrust changes first, the environment in which rumors live on will not change. What we need to fear more is not the rumor itself but the society that feels catharsis through the rumor.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 30, Page 30

*The author is a deputy political and international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


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