Text rumors prove costly in China

Scott Tong Jun 15, 2007

Text rumors prove costly in China

Scott Tong Jun 15, 2007


BOB MOON: Police departments in Boston and Los Angeles announced plans this week to accept text messages from cellular callers. They can even send photos and videos of emergencies. It’s seen as a way of encouraging more cooperation with police.

In China, they’Ve discovered texting as a way to get around authorities. With the power of their thumbs, environmentalists organized a mass protest against a chemical company.

Digital word of mouth — it’s a powerful tool companies can use to create buzz. But as Scott Tong reports, this texting buzz can cut two ways.

Scott Tong: The national anthem of China may be the ringtone . . . Cell phones go off all day here. And chances are, folks aren’t getting calls, they’re getting mobile phone text messages. In one 10-day period this year, 10 billion messages went out.

This is the what Zhao Xin’s phone does when she gets a message. She’s a freshman at Hainan University in Southern China.

Zhao Xin: If I have a boyfriend, I might send 70 or 80 messages every day.

One message costs less than one penny to send. You don’t need a monthly plan, you just need a phone.

John Van Fleet: It is like a low-tech Blackberry.

John Van Fleet is with the China Digital Marketing Association. He says 400 million Chinese people carry cell phones, so text messaging is a huge advertising market. Here, they call the technology SMS, as in short messaging service.

van fleet: The SMS is a great technology for China, because it allows you to reach out to people that may not have the ability to access the Internet. I cannot think of any five-minute period when I’m on the street that I don’t see somebody with their right thumb punching away on the little cell-phone keyboard.

Mobile phone messages spread information, but also disinformation — sometimes with economically disastrous results.

Hainan is China’s banana capital. Last month a bizarre text message rumor went out claiming Hainan bananas carried a virus like SARS. Consumers freaked, prices plummeted.

Banana grower Wu Si Gui says that’s destroyed business. He’s lost $60,000 this growing season. It’s more than 90 percent of his investment.

Wu Si Gui: We can’t even sell this stalk of hundreds of bananas. Not even for 12 cents. Nobody wants them because of the false rumors. We even have to pay people to haul them away, to toss them onto the side of the freeway.

On the rare occasion he does make a sale, his workers fill a giant truck with tens of thousands of bananas. All to make $300. That’s a tenth of what he should get.

Farmers here speak of desperation these days. Shi Cui Hua says she can barely afford to buy vegetables to cook with her rice.

Shi Cui Hua: Each day my family lives on one bitter melon, one cucumber and one eggplant.

The police are looking for the source of the text-message rumor. And if they find the person, banana farmer Dian You Feng (speaking in a taxi) wants him to pay.

Dian You Feng: That damned rumor maker should be killed by a thousand cuts. Even if they toss him in jail for decades, along with three generations of his ancestors, not even that would be enough to punish him for what he’s done to us.

Now, cell phone messages tell just part of the story. There’s also a banana glut going on here. And summer’s usually a slow season for the fruit. But the digital word of mouth turned an already bad situation into an instant disaster.

Christian Murck is with the PR firm APCO Worldwide.

Christian Murck: Text messaging technology is probably the fastest means to spread any kind of rumor or information.

He says many people in China believe in rumors — even a hoax about killer bananas — because they don’t trust traditional media, state-sponsored television and newspapers.

Murck: The government frequently will either say nothing or hold back until they have had a chance to investigate and decide what ought to be conveyed to the general population. So it’s an environment where people are always looking for the inside story and that tends to contribute to people paying attention to rumors.

A few days after the banana SARS rumor went out, local officials tried to quash it. But by then it was too late. The banana market was dead.

Murck says the lesson for businesses in China is they need to monitor the digital chatter — what people are saying about them — so they can respond in a hurry.

For Hainan’s banana growers, it’s too late for that. They can’t give away their product. So in some cases they’re feeding them to the pigs.

On Hainan Island, Southern China, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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