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Rumors Are Spreading Like Fire Through Hong Kong's Protests

Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

The night of Sunday, Sept. 28, Gloria Cheung sat in the post-production lab of the journalism department of Hong Kong University, half-editing a documentary project, half-following the news about the Occupy Central protests. She saw that Hong Kong police were firing tear gas canisters into crowds of protestors, including some of her friends. “I thought I should join them,” she said. As she walked toward ground zero of the protests, she watched as her friends’ messages on social media become increasingly panicked. The People’s Liberation Army had cordoned off the island, some said. Others posted a photo of a tank driving through the cross-harbor tunnel. A woman came up to her and said the police were firing rubber bullets. “People were just shouting unconfirmed rumors in the street,” she said.

On a whim, she posted a note on Facebook: “Calling all journalists: there has got to be a fact checking site or spot. Too much false or unverified information in the web.” A friend quickly created a Facebook page called “LIVE: Verified updates” and began posting updates about the protests, citing a source on each post. When Cheung got home around 2 a.m., it had 20,000 likes, and the number has since climbed to 112,000.

Cheung’s team quickly grew from a handful of journalism students to more than 20. They now run their operations out of a common room in HKU’s journalism department covered in beanbag chairs, Cup of Noodles containers, and leftover McDonald’s. A few editors work from the “office” while reporters spread out across the protest sites, talking to sources on the ground. Every day they post dozens of updates. Sleep is a rare luxury, Cheung told me during our 3 a.m. interview Sunday morning, and many students crash at the office: “We have a person who has not gone home all week.”

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters have become famous for their digital savvy. Students pore over their phones, Facebooking, tweeting, Whatsapping, and Firechatting a near-constant stream of information. But with information comes misinformation, and the Occupy Central protests have become fertile ground for sketchy hearsay.

Some rumors are the result of simple misunderstanding. The photo of the tank that went around on Sunday was from 2012, during a routine military exercise. When some people claimed that gangsters had attacked a first aid station in Mong Kok on Tuesday, Cheung checked with the volunteers who worked there and discovered it wasn’t true. (It was prescient, however: The Monk Kok camp was later torn down by groups of men wearing facemasks.) 

Other tales stem from speculation gone wild. After “anti-protesters” attacked the camps in Mong Kok, On Sunday night, reports that police could use rubber bullets were misconstrued as, police had used rubber bullets. Occupy supporters passed around a side-by-side comparison of a photo of a policeman and a photo of one of the anti-protesters, claiming they were the same person, which would prove that the police and thugs were in cahoots. Upon closer examination, the two men looked similar but not identical. A student sent out a mass warning that police were preparing to clear out protesters, citing groups of auxiliary medics had been put on standby on the south side of the island. It turned out the move had nothing to do with police escalation, and the student apologized in a follow-up message. 

Some people have deliberately released false statements in an attempt to derail the protests. An audio recording circulated this week of someone purporting to be Joshua Wong, the student leader, telling protesters to go home. On his Facebook page, Wong said it was a fake. On Thursday, a letter surfaced supposedly written by the vice-chancellor of Chinese University of Hong Kong, denouncing protestors as “red guards.” The university confirmed that he had never sent such a letter.

The problem is many rumors are nearly impossible to check. Most protesters are convinced that the anti-protesters are getting money from the government or from police. But how do you verify that? “Unless you spot someone getting money and then going to the scene and destroying things, or destroying things and then getting paid, then you can’t say for sure that there’s a connection,” said Cheung. Some Occupiers sent around a photo of a check for HK$700 supposedly dropped by an anti-protester, which they said proved he was on the dole. Others circulated a document detailing how much you could get paid for messing with protesters: A base fee of HK$200 or HK$300, depending on the location, plus HK$500 for knocking down a supply station and HK$1000 for “causing chaos.” No one has verified its legitimacy.

The power of rumors at Occupy owes largely to the deep lack of trust. Between the tear gas and pepper spray, the sneaking in of security equipment while changing shifts, and the decision in many cases in Mong Kok to ignore violence, protesters say they’ve lost their faith in law enforcement. When police tried to deliver breakfast to officers guarding the chief executive’s office on Friday morning, protesters wouldn’t let them through, suspecting the trucks contained more than food and water. (The police wouldn’t open the trucks to prove otherwise.) Trust remains thin within the movement, too: When a man in Mong Kok picked up a microphone and suggested retreating to Admiralty, he was labeled a spy. Also driving rumors is the skepticism toward Hong Kong media. One protester sitting in the road near the chief executive’s office refused an interview with TVB, the broadcaster many students dismiss as pro-Beijing propaganda. (Nicknames include “CCTVB” and “TVBS.”) They’re equally disdainful of most Hong Kong newspapers. “There’s an increasing discussion about whether the Hong Kong media is ‘red,’” said Cheung. The lack of reliable media is part of the reason Cheung doesn’t know what she’ll do after graduation in December. “I’m not even sure I’m going to work in journalism.”

The best approach is to remain skeptical, wrote journalist Au Ka Lun in a recent article that got re-posted by protesters. Readers should ask themselves three questions, he wrote: “Who said it? Is it real? Are there other possible explanations?” Albert Lee, 31, was putting this strategy of radical skepticism to work in Mong Kok Sunday morning. “I don’t know,” he said, raising his hands and shrugging his shoulders, when I asked him if he thought a particular anti-protester was getting paid. “No evidence. No evidence. I don’t know.”