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New breed of sleuth works to debunk web rumors  2013-01-06 16:59

  ( -- A growing number of professionals are teaming up against the hoaxes and rumors that continue to afflict the Chinese Internet, according to the Southern Metropolis Weekly.

  An organization launched in 2010 called is pioneering the effort. The site says its aim is to change the culture of China's online ecosystem through programs like the "Rumor Pulverizer," which focuses on widespread lies linked to current affairs.

  Consisting of more than 20 members with advanced degrees in fields such as physics, biology, electronics and mathematics, the Guokr team has made the site a hit by refuting some of China's most controversial spates of misinformation.

  The most well-known occurred in March last year when hysteria broke out after Japan's Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Countless Chinese citizens had fallen victim to a rumor that potassium iodide could protect them against radioactive fallout, and salt soon disappeared from supermarket shelves.

  But according to, consumption of enough salt to achieve the desired anti-radioactive effect – which would most likely be fatal – was more of a threat than the radiation itself. The site's level-headed analysis helped cool the buying spree and soon earned it a larger following on popular microblogging sites like Weibo. "Rumor Pulverizer" alone has more than 370,000 followers on the Twitter-like site, while has over 650,000, and both are growing day by day.

  So significant is the false-rumor phenomenon in China, that Weibo set up its own task force in late 2010. It consisted of seven "rumor detectives," some proficient at English and others simply good at scouring the web, who would tag online rumors as "false news" if they found sufficient evidence.

  "Only rumors with considerable influence were worth refuting, and most of the online hoaxes we chose to deal with were those that had sparked heated discussions," says Tan Chao, former head of the team.

  Weibo was eventually confounded by the results, however, as the public sometimes tended to have greater faith in the rumors after they were refuted officially. Hoaxes were becoming more powerful, despite the evidence provided against them, the site found.

  Last May, Weibo disbanded the team and began a less proactive approach to avoid possible counterproductive effects. Now, it only takes action against rumors reported by its registered users.

  So far, half of China's Internet users have registered on microblogging sites, making it more necessary than ever for the blogosphere to be credible, according to the New Media Research Laboratory of Peking University.

  Government departments and individuals are making efforts to achieve that, but the responses from the public are not always positive. In one example that occurred last August, Chongqing police were forced to publish photos of the body of Zhou Kehua, a notorious serial killer, to satisfy public suspicion that he was in fact dead.

  Truth and rumor always appear together, says the Southern Metropolis Weekly, so netizens should protect themselves against online hoaxes and never believe any story until they have done considerable research.


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