The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In China, rumors are flying about David Dao’s alleged $140 million settlement from United Airlines

Travelers check in at the United Airlines ticket counter at Terminal 1 in O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. (Nam Y. Huh/File/AP Photo)

It took United Airlines only a few weeks to reach a confidential settlement with David Dao, the passenger who was violently removed from a flight April 9. U.S. legal analysts suggested that Dao would receive up to several million dollars.

On the other side of the globe, rumors that the settlement was a whopping $140 million quickly went viral. A much-shared Chinese social media post had this title: “Ethnic Chinese passenger receives 140 million U.S. dollars in compensation; Internet users declare they will take United Airlines as long as the beating will not result in death.”

Another popular post drew more general conclusions, including “it’s still better to fly with an American airline” and “if you’re to be beaten, it’s better to be beaten by a foreigner, because you won’t get anything even if you are beaten to death by a Chinese.”

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Undoubtedly some of these are dark jokes, but many in China seem to believe the unsubstantiated payout of $140 million, as the many comments on the popular microblogging platform Weibo suggest.

Why people believe this rumor reveals much about social anxiety and political trust in China.

Fake news may be particularly prevalent in authoritarian states

The issue of misinformation, fake news and rumors has become highly salient following the recent elections in the United States and France. Its implications for democratic politics have also received increasing scholarly attention.

In contrast, there has been little systematic examination of the political effects of rumors in non-democracies, even though rumors are particularly likely to flourish where there is a lack of independent mainstream media, a feature of most authoritarian countries.

My recent article in the British Journal of Political Science shows that Chinese citizens from diverse sociopolitical backgrounds are similarly susceptible to unsubstantiated rumors. Even Chinese Communist Party members believe rumors implicating the government, and they do so almost as much as non-Party members. This is different from democratic countries, where individuals’ belief in misinformation is usually shaped by partisanship.

Are the rumors indicative of deep anxiety and distrust in China?

But what does the widespread rumor about the United Airlines settlement say about public opinion and political trust in China? After all, the story does not relate directly to China or the Chinese government, and Dao was originally from Vietnam.

It actually says quite a bit.

Psychological studies suggest that rumors often spread amid social anxiety and reflect believers’ stress, fear or resentment. The discussions in China about the huge settlement revealed that people contrast this large amount with the potential compensation that mistreated individuals in similar or worse situations could receive in China.

These online discussions sometimes brought up references to the father of a tainted milk victim, who was indicted on a charge of “blackmailing” when he demanded an additional 3 million yuan (about $435,000) in compensation after his daughter sustained kidney damage from the melamine added to a dairy company’s baby formula sold in China. He had agreed initially to a settlement of 400,000 yuan (about $58,000) — then spent five years in jail and was only recently declared innocent by a higher court.

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Incidents such as this and the general perception of the lack of justice and fairness in China made the $140 million United settlement rumor go viral. The rapid spread of the rumor also may relate in part to the rosy images Chinese people often have about the outside world, which influence their domestic attitudes and even exit intentions, as my previous research has found.

Can rebuttals improve the public’s trust of the government?

My work also shows how the Chinese government attempts to combat rumors, particularly those that put it in a negative light. Because the United settlement was not directly about China, the Chinese government had no official response to the rumor, but some media outlets and websites discussed why $140 million is not a very plausible amount.

There’s a deeper story, though. For the believers, rumors often serve as symbolic warning tales about some larger social and policy issues, regardless of the veracity of the specific “facts” those rumors allege. My research, therefore, focuses on individuals’ opinion on social and policy issues related to the rumors, not just their belief about the rumors’ specific content.

My experimental study finds that anti-government rumors reduce citizens’ trust in the government. Perhaps more importantly, it suggests that rebuttals can generally reduce people’s belief in the specific content of rumors — but often fail to restore public trust in the Chinese government on policy issues related to the rumors.

For example, following a high-speed train collision in Wenzhou a few years ago, a viral rumor claimed that the family of the foreign victim received 30 million euros (about $38.9 million at the time) in compensation, whereas the families of Chinese victims each received only 915,000 yuan (about $145,000). The Chinese government denied the rumor, saying every victim was treated the same.

My survey experiment found that the rumor increased the participants’ belief that the Chinese government gives foreign citizens preferential treatment over Chinese citizens. The rebuttal reduced their belief that the foreign victim’s family got 30 million euros in compensation — but did not convince them that the government treats Chinese and foreign citizens equally.

My research also shows that, under some circumstances, rebuttals can recover people’s trust in the government. This happens when the rebuttal is detailed, vivid, and able to conclusively prove the rumor wrong, or when a well-known public figure perceived to be independent of the government — e.g., an outspoken government critic — rebuts a rumor.

But effective rebuttals are hard to come by. Rumors are usually about inherently ambiguous situations and therefore difficult to refute conclusively. For example, because the United Airlines settlement is confidential, it is difficult to prove beyond doubt that it was less than $140 million. At the same time, government critics cannot regularly come to the government’s defense because they will lose their reputations for being independent.

What is the overall implication of the United rumor?

The United settlement rumor reminded people in China of the inadequacy of consumer protections in the country — and perhaps about other shortcomings in China’s political and legal systems. My research suggests that the rebuttals that have appeared on some Chinese websites may not do much to change this perception, even if people come to doubt the specific $140 million figure.

Ultimately, without addressing the larger social and political issues that have given rise to citizens’ anxiety, rumors such as this will erode political trust in China. Tightening control of the mainstream media may make things worse since such restrictions could make Chinese citizens more cynical of the government — and increase their reliance on rumors as an information source.

Haifeng Huang is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Merced. His research interests include media and information, public opinion, and authoritarianism, focusing on China. Find him on Twitter @haifeng_huang.