Monday, September 14, 2009

The truth?

In an authoritarian nation, the truth is often relative and typically only available from official sources. However, in the age of the internet, where information can be quickly disseminated to and obtained from multiple sources, the official government line is only one of many. This is often to the chagrin of the powers that be. In China, there is a burgeoning online community who have taken it upon themselves to present the news that is not presented in the official media. In this unofficial media, there have been several instances where justice for the ordinary 老百姓 has been obtained through outing egregiously corrupt officials which has caused the government to arrest or otherwise punish them in order to maintain social order, among them the recent case of Deng Yujiao.

But there is also reason to worry about the power and even the validity of these anonymous online vigilantes. Truth can wear many faces and it is not often easy to know the exact circumstances of any given event. Another event that has been compared to Deng Yujiao is that of Yan Xiaoling. But there appears to be doubts on both sides of her death. Clearly, many in the Chinese blogosphere seem convinced that the local government is hiding those who are believed to have assaulted and murdered her. But, as the link indicates, there also appears to be a case to be made that her death was an unfortunate accident. The point here is not to verify the truth behind this incident as much as it is to point out the power of the internet as a place to both gather and disseminate information. Conspiracy theories are rife on the internet - as evidenced by the fact that googling 9/11 conspiracy returns a mere 12, 200,000 results - but a great majority of the population of the US believes that 19 terrorists hijacked 4 planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers.

This is due in large part to an open and free media. However, when there is only one official source of news and it is largely dismissed by a majority of the population, then the ground is fertile for the rumors that create the very social instability that it is allegedly designed to prevent. Whether the rumors are right or wrong, the fact that few will believe the official media leaves the opening for alternative forms of reporting and commentary. And those are far more difficult to control than a more formal media element.

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