How should the Government handle rumours?
Surprisingly frank analysis from Today:
A rumour that former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had died started circulating on Twitter at least five days before the National Day Parade, with journalists asked by just about everyone – friends, parents, the neighbourhood barber – about its veracity. And despite a couple of journalists’ efforts to debunk the rumour online, it continued to spread, spilling over into the heartlands via word of mouth and SMSes.
It reportedly generated some of the most searched terms on Google during that period, and was rolling off the tongues of housewives and taxi drivers as well. Internet chatter became coffee shop talk.
This is not the first time that rumours have circulated about the health of one of Singapore’s founding fathers and former Prime Minister. But never before, it is fair to say, had the speculation spread so virulently, quickly and widely.
In an age where more than one in two Singapore residents is ostensibly on Facebook – that’s 2,712,060 users here – social media has become the megaphone that amplifies rumours exponentially.
So what has been puzzling to many was the radio silence during the week from the Government, which in the past has found ways, direct or otherwise, to dispel such misinformation. …
The incident provides much to chew on, including how it demonstrated a widespread belief, misguided or otherwise, among Singaporeans that the Government would withhold important information for expediency.
Just as important, well-educated Singapore society – as a whole, as well as at the individual level – was found wanting in its ready credulity. A society susceptible to rumours is an easy target for any troublemaker, with the new media as an accomplice. …
So why did the state machinery – which recently added a Chief of Government Communications to its ranks – not rebut the rumour about Mr Lee’s health?
Granted, there is the risk that addressing rumours (which breed effortlessly in cyberpace) ends up lending them credence, and encourages even more rumour-mongering, not to mention a public expectation that the Government will rebut every untruth – failing which, the assumption is “it must be true”.
The Government’s long-held stance is that it does not deal in rumours. But surely, given how this particular rumour gained traction and created protracted public anxiety, some sort of response – not necessarily an official one – was merited? …
Today, Mr Lee does not hold any Cabinet position. It may, or may not, have been a factor in why it was felt unnecessary to officially rebut the rumour. But is this not where the Government’s social media strategy should have come into play?
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Tags: death, lee kuan yew, national day parade, rumor, rumour