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Chinese netizens on the hunt for truth
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The Internet, as a relatively young form of mass communication, has radically changed Chinese people's lives and their ways of looking at the world. There has emerged a trend where in Internet debates Chinese netizens, whether they agree or disagree with what they read, will seriously and professionally try to find proof supporting their opinions via web searches and even field investigations. 

The dispute over the appearance of a South China Tiger and the rumor of the disappearance of Chang'e-1, China's first lunar obiter are examples of how the changing Chinese Internet culture is not only affecting individual users, but also more traditional media sources.

On October 12th, the Shaanxi Province's Department of Forestry publicized a series of photos allegedly depicting the South China Tiger, declaring that tigers of this endangered species had not died out in the wild as previously speculated. That same afternoon, a person posted the news release along with the tiger photo on an online professional photographer's forum. Six hours later a forum member expressed suspicion, saying that the photo seemed to be a Photoshop creation.

Other interested members began analyzing the photo in terms of lighting, perspective, and color, among other elements. The next day, a person who claimed himself to be a Photoshop expert said that the size of the tiger could be estimated based on that of the leaves in the photo and if the photo was authentic, the actual size of the tiger would be near to that of a rat.

Words quickly spread, and other online communities became involved in the dispute. They came up with various hypotheses about how the photo was made, but the one thing they all agreed on was that the photo was a fake. Voices in the virtual world grew louder as more people participated in the debate on the authenticity of the photo, including experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), officials from Shaanxi Province, well-known wildlife photographers, and the person who claimed capturing the image of the tiger.

The hot debate among Chinese netizens and experts even aroused the interest of foreign media. On October 30th British newspaper Financial Times reported the controversy over the picture of the endangered South China Tiger was dominating Chinese online communities. This was followed by prestigious US Science Magazine, who reported the ongoing public debate in their November 9 issue. This story featured the original photo captioned "Flat cat?" in order to showcase people's doubts.

Even though the myth may never be solved, the debate continues to grow hotter and hotter. In early November, Fu Dezhi, a photo skeptic and expert from the CAS predicted that the State Forestry Administration would not be able to persuade any expert to do a field investigation on the tiger because no expert wants to ruin his reputation for a lie.

Fortunately for scientists, the Chang'e-1 rumor did not last so long. On November 13, a Chinese netizen made a post entitled "Did Chang'e-1 disappear?" on an online forum, which attracted over 120,000 views and about 1,000 replies. Many people assumed based on the post that something had gone wrong with the lunar obiter.

Similar to the tiger photo issue, traditional media began running related stories and interviewed experts for authoritative explanations. On November 16, The South Metropolitan News newspaper interviewed Long Lehao, an academician with the CAS and deputy chief architect of the lunar probe project. He spoke frankly in an attempt to squash the rumor: "The online messages are groundless for sure. Pay no attention to them. But please mark my words -- Chang'e' can never be gone."

Four days later, the netizen who originated the rumor reflected on the post and pointed out that discussion by some of matters irrelevant to the Chang'e issue within the message thread actually made the situation worse. On the same day, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) reported that as of 14:00 November 20th, Chang'e I had circled the moon 158 times and all systems were operational. Official websites of the Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND), China Lunar Exploration Project (CLEP), and CNSA began updating news about Chang'e-1 in real time in order to keep the general public constantly informed.         

These two examples show a progression in Chinese Internet culture. Many involved in the discussion threads searched for evidence to support their arguments, and some even did offline research. Just a few years ago, the Internet was merely a virtual platform, but now to many netizens it is connected to their personal lives.

Yu Guoming, director of the Institute of Public Opinions under Renmin University of China (RUC) said that Chinese netizens are becoming more mature in their interactions and general behavior. The Chinese online community has formed its own moral standards that may serve as a foundation to widen the Internet's influence, Yu added.

In addition, Chinese netizens are better informed and able to distinguish fake information more easily than before. In this way, groundless rumors will not be able to survive, let alone spread widely within the online community. Some experts believe that with netizens constantly improving themselves, the Internet community will show more of its positive side.

It is no surprise that traditional media are more frequently adopting the Internet as the source of their news. A foreign research report predicts that by 2010 about 70 percent of news stories will first be released by bloggers or podcasters instead of professional journalists. Some experts think that the traditional media's dependence on the Internet for news stories will only grow stronger in the future.

Dr. Zhou Qingan from Tsinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication said China should follow the practices of the US to draft laws to govern the Internet world and guide its development. He believes such laws are absolutely necessary in order to maintain a harmonious society. 

( by Pang Li, December 2, 2007) 

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