In Chinese, there is a saying that goes if three people say a tiger is running loose in the city, then there is in fact a tiger running loose in the city (三人成虎 san ren cheng hu). It does not matter that tigers do not run loose in cities, it matters that three people said so.
Something repeated enough becomes the truth. Occasionally, though, this is rather harmless.
For example, take Jordan Davis, Georgia’s star defensive tackle. You probably noticed him if you watched last week’s college football national championship game, where his tenacious play led Georgia to victory over archrival Alabama. Checking in at six feet six inches tall and an impressive three hundred forty pounds, he is nearly impossible to miss. For the past two months, major sports media outlets had accepted the rather strange truth that Davis, a college senior, was twenty-six years old. A full article by Fox Sports was even devoted to his age in November, titled “How Old is Jordan Davis?”
When what was supposed to be his twenty-seventh birthday rolled around on January twelfth, the football universe was shocked to find out that he was in fact the age of an ordinary college senior: twenty-two. Humorously, it was a tweet by Davis himself, complete with a laughing-crying emoji, which let the cat out of the bag. Besides his apparent amusement, he stands to make a sizable salary bonus as a result of his newfound youth. NFL teams wanted nothing to do with a twenty-seven year old prospect, whereas now he is projected to be a late first-round pick in the draft.
Another lap around the sun. Another candle to the cake. Here’s to 27! (22)😂
— Jordan Davis (@jordanxdavis99) January 12, 2022
There is a fine line between misinformation that can be rectified versus that which spreads from fear or lack of knowledge.
Last week in eastern Washington, a flock of demonstrators gathered to protest the state’s Department of Health offices after social media rumors were picked up and spread by radio hosts and congressional candidates. The panic was caused by fears that the government would soon be authorized to forcibly detain unvaccinated persons in quarantine facilities. It was, of course, misinformation.
Keith Grellner, chair of the Board of Health, summed up the scariest aspect of the whole ordeal, which he said was the fact that “people are so willing to accept this stuff as fact, and they won’t even take the time to look at information when it’s available to determine whether it’s true.”
There is another Chinese idiom—“to call a deer a horse” (指鹿爲馬 zhi lu wei ma)±that strikes an ominous resonance with our current climate. The phrase is derived from a story in the Records of the Grand Historian, a history of ancient China written around 100 BCE by Sima Qian, China’s patron saint of history and, naturally, one of my idols. The excerpt below, translated by Burton Watson, exemplifies the epistemological warfare at the center of court politics in China’s first empire, the Qin dynasty:
Zhao Gao was contemplating treason but was afraid the other officials would not heed his commands, so he decided to test them first. He brought a deer and presented it to the Second Emperor but called it a horse…Then the emperor questioned those around him. Some remained silent, while some, hoping to ingratiate themselves with Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, and others said it was a deer. Zhao Gao secretly arranged for all those who said it was a deer to be brought before the law [read: killed]. Thereafter, the officials were all terrified of Zhao Gao.
The power manichinations employed by Zhao Gao, the notoriously corrupt, egotistical, and manipulative eunuch at the center of this excerpt, were eventually instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the Qin dynasty in 206 BCE.
Zhao’s blatant misrepresentations push us into the realm of disinformation—false information intended to mislead. In an environment of rampant misinformation, bred by fear and ignorance, there is only a short distance until it is wielded inappropriately for one’s own gain.
Chad Westra (’15) is a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington where he studies modern Chinese history. He enjoys chess, following Detroit sports, and caring for the overgrowth of plants in his condo.