David Wertime

Ten Ways to Spot a False Rumor on Weibo — Lessons From Kim Jong-Un's Non-Assassination

At Tea Leaf Nation, we spend a lot of time in China’s blogosphere wading through rumors. Sometimes, the rumor is likely to be true; other times, the reactions to the rumor are themselves worthy of a story.

And then there are the rumors which are (almost certainly) just false, like the rumored death of Kim-Jong Un that briefly set Weibo, China’s Twitter, aflame early Saturday morning. Short of jetting to Pyongyang and sitting down with Kim Jong-Un for karaoke and soju, we are as sure as we can be that he is, for better or for worse, still alive.

So why are we so sure? How do we know the Kim Jong-Un rumor was almost certainly false?

  1. The rumor occurs late on a Friday or Saturday night (in this case, Saturday at 2:19 a.m.). Not having to face their boss the next day, many netizens use Friday and Saturday nights to binge on Weibo and other Internet candy the way some college students binge on beer. If you’re out partying in China, check your iPhone and see your Weibo account blowing up with shocking political news, consider a cup of coffee and a cold shower before you re-tweet.
  2. There is an original basis of undeniable fact, but that fact could mean anything. This rumor began when about 30 black cars amassed outside of the North Korean embassy in Beijing. That could definitely occur because of something sinister. Or, it could occur because important people are coming and going. You know, because it’s an embassy.
  3. It all starts with a written document posted as a JPEG (this avoids the censors–easy!). Those are almost always a hoax, just like this open letter from recently deposed Chongqing crimefighter Wang Lijun.
  4. The rumor begins, “According to reliable sources.” Why does the person delivering the information have to write that? Because they aren’t reliable.
  5. The rumor occurs in the near aftermath of a real crisis. Wang Lijun’s rumored defection was genuinely shocking political theater. This incident set all of China on edge, and got every journalist, not to mention every auntie and “old hundred names” [i.e. commoner], on the lookout for the next crisis.
  6. Everyone secretly wants it to be true. As netizens pointed out in this case, the rumored fact echoes netizens’ own desires. Many Chinese are not huge fans of North Korea’s old-school Communist regime, which issues bellicose statements and arms itself while China foots most of the food and energy bill.
  7. The sources are sketchy. More prominent microbloggers with reputations to protect ignore the rumor, make fun of it, or ask for proof. Less prominent microbloggers have less to lose from being wrong, so they tweet away–they just like the attention.
  8. The bigger the story, the less–not more–netizens will seek to verify it. It’s so juicy, they just can’t help themselves.
  9. In an information vacuum, lies rush in to fill the void. And no one is more opaque than the North Korean government.
  10. The sky didn’t fall. If a young, unstable leader of a highly unstable nuclear country was killed while visiting his neighbor and greatest ally in the world’s arguably most volatile region, it could lead to widespread chaos, even war. Yet I was still able to watch Jeremy Lin play the Lakers and my beer was still cold.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.