Rumors Hurt Because Of Loss Of Trust In The Authorities

(Southern Metropolis Daily)  Rumors Hurt Because Of Loss Of Trust In The Authorities.  By Chang Ping.  October 25, 2008.

[in translation]

You receive a SMS forwarded by a friend: "Please tell your family, colleagues and friends not to eat tangerines.  This year, the Guangyuan tangerines were found to contain maggots when you unpeel them.  In Sichuan, a big batch of tangerines were covered with lime and buried."  What will you do?

If you ignore it and go back home as usual after work, you may observe the following scene: Your child is crying because of the trauma at seeing the maggots crawling inside the tangerine and your wife is vomiting her stomach out after swallowing the maggots.  Then she asks you whether the child should be taken to the hospital.  At that instant, you should slap yourselves a couple of times secretly and delete the SMS as quickly as possible (but you should forward it to your friends if you have time), because your wife would curse you out if she found out that you had knowledge.

But if you forward that SMS as soon as you receive and you even follow up with a voice telephone call, then it is for certain that the effect of this rumor may be magnified.  The tangerine growers who worked hard to ensure that there would be no maggots in their fruits will become the victims of your spreading the rumor.  Their entire hopes for the year's harvest will evaporate and they will be worried sick over how to pay for the school tuition of their their children.

I would like those local government officials who want to track down the rumor sources to face this hard problem together.  I suspect that your method of solution would be to call a health inspection official that you know well and ask him in both official and personal capacities about what is going on.  The other party may tell you that it is true, but it was not a "big batch" of tangerines.  For example, Guangyuan city Wangcang country vice mayor Yin Fujiong said that they had destroyed 1,252 tons of tangerines of which only 12 tons contained maggots.  When you hear that, you think that 12 tons is a lot.  So you say: "It does not matter whether it was a large or small quantity, because I don't want the children to even eat a single one.  Why didn't you find them at first?"  Maybe the other party was not derelict in their duties or did not engage in trading power for money.  Instead they told the media candidly: "You can't blame us, because these maggots are not included in the national list for quarantine inspection.  If anything, they should have been inspected after they reach the market."  They may also say that the harm from ingesting the maggots is small and the remaining ones should be discarded when found.

Dear government officials, I would like to know how you would handle that SMS after hearing all that?  Would you forward the SMS?  Would you communicate the message by some other method (such as calling your wife by telephone)?  Or would you go down to the street and buy a kilogram of tangerines for your mother-in-law?

There is a saying that "rumors stop with wise people."  This "wisdom" refers firstly to the possession of sufficient analytical skills; secondly, it refers to the possession of the relevant information that you can analyze.  In modern society, no single person can know what happens when melamine is added into the milk powder, or maggots grow inside tangerines, or the number of deaths in a mining disaster, or a myriad of other problems.  This means that it is impossible to stop rumors via individual "wisdom."  The solution is a division of labor in society. Some people are in charge of mine safety, some people are in charge of food safety inspection, and some people are in charge of vegetable quarantine inspection.  All these require professional experts, professional tools, and professional procedures.  So the respective government departments become the authorities.  After the ordinary citizens put up the money (that is, pay their taxes) to finance these government departments, they don't need to develop their own "wisdom" (which would be impossible to get anyway).

In this regard, government officials are just like ordinary citizens because they have to rely on the authoritativeness of government departments.  The difference is that government officials have access to more reliable information by virtue of their job positions.  Ordinary citizens used to trust the authoritative government departments.  They thought that they could have ease of mind when they buy milk from legally licensed stores and drink.  Then they ended up with kidney stones.  They questioned the authoritative government departments, who said that the milk had been spared inspection.  They were also told that even if there had been inspections, the melamine would not have been within the scope of the inspection procedures.  So even though the maggots in the tangerine were disgusting (and they can cause a "small" harm), they do not fall into the inspection regime either.  So what are the people to do if they don't want to have kidney stones or eat maggots?

If an inaccurate hearsay is automatically a rumor, then rumors are unavoidable.  Nobody can guarantee that everything that they say is 100% accurate.  It is questionable whether anything in the world can be 100% accurate.  Rumors cause damage.  So how can we minimize the damage?  In the case of food safety, we rely on the authority of government departments.  If these government departments are trusted by people, they have the capability and means to release information on a timely basis.  Such information are not guaranteed to be 100% accurate, but they will be 100 times more reliable than the rumors.  Thus, the damage from rumors is reduced.

As for the farmers who reared tangerines without maggots, they pay a certain fee and obtain a certificate from the relevant department to show that their products have passed quarantine inspection.  This is a guarantee of quality.  But when the government department is not trustworthy, then nobody is going to buy the tangerines whether they passed inspection or not.  When that happens, the government department whose guarantee has failed is responsible for the losses of the farmers.  Also, you cannot spend so much of the taxpayers' money and yet cannot even counter a single rumor.

How do we build up the authoritativeness of the government departments?  Many government officials believe that if the critical voices are clammed up and the rumor mongers are sent to prison, their authoritativeness will be established.  The practical experience over recent years shows that this is an extremely stupid thing to do because the effects are quite the opposite.  Apart from the fact that the taxpayers have the natural right to criticize the government, the more you are afraid of criticisms, the more your trustworthiness becomes suspect.  When you rely solely upon violence to quell rumors, you will only accelerate the spread of the rumors.  The government should study hard and come up with better methods to make those government departments become trusted by the people.