In crises, one of the things we’re taught to keep an eye out for is rumors. Squash rumors! Track rumors and report them! Redirect people, but gently! Rumors will throw your messaging off as you’re now reacting to things in the media, as opposed to setting the message and tone yourself. That’s all well and good, especially when the disaster is happening in your backyard.
But what if it’s happening a world away? In a country with a history of tamping down on communications that don’t support the official party line, especially if those rumors make the country look bad? Maybe rumors aren’t so bad then.
One of the very best H7N9 bloggers out there, Crawford Kilian, posted an article last week found on Xinhua.net, a Chinese newspaper with an n English-language section of the site. The article is about all of the work Chinese officials are doing to squash rumors around H7N9 influenza.
And that’s a good thing, right? Squash rumors! Or is it?
In the case of H7N9 influenza, where we already know that information that will help with surveillance, planning and protection measures is being withheld for reasons of credit during publication, is rumor squashing the best course of action (for the world, I mean; not the censors)?
We’ve already seen that social media “rumors” have provided the world world with more information about the outbreak:
Yesterday, a “gutsy” employee at Nanjing Gulou Hospital posted a picture, confirming a case of H7N9, to Weibo, a Chinese microblogging network similar to Twitter (except Weibo is censured by the Chinese government). In a movement that demonstrated the power of social media, this Weibo user forced the hand of hospital officials to publicly confirm this case, via Weibo.
Are we really in a position, given the life-preserving need for information, to lump rumors automatically into the “bad” side of things? We’ve already talked about how the truth is a process that we ultimately arrive at, do you think that rumors might be a part of that process? Maybe they’re not rumors, just unconfirmed reports that help us move towards the truth? Even debunking a rumor refines what the final truth would be.
And just a reminder that this isn’t a China-bashing post. The inimitable Maryn McKenna posted last week on a series of new cases and deaths from novel coronavirus that was just reported, weeks to months late. Now imagine the value that a rumor mill like Weibo could be in Saudi Arabia. How much better we all might be protected.