Chinese authorities are investigating so-called rumour-mongers whose online posts have prompted multiple government agencies to issue death notices for thousands of people who haven’t died. The moves follow widespread public concern over the apparent decline in the number of reported respiratory infections in recent months. Experts warn that rumour-mongering will only foment greater ignorance if it is not checked and addressed at the grassroots level.

The government-operated Xinhua news agency recently reported that authorities are investigating internet users who spread rumour-mongering reports that have caused public anxiety in China. Since October, four internet users have been arrested for rumours online, with hundreds of other users investigated for spreading false rumours that have caused widespread public fear in recent months.

Speaking to AP, Chinese Ministry of Health spokesman Mao Qun’an denied any official crackdown, but said officials have been investigating online rumours in recent months.

“I would be unaware of any such practice [of government agencies issuing death notices for online rumour-mongers] even if someone mentioned it,” Mao said. “I’ve never heard of such a thing, but if there was, I would treat it as a problem of social governance.”

Though recent outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) have apparently decreased in recent months, there has been concern that false rumours about the virus on the internet are taking their toll on public perceptions of the true nature of SARS. As the New York Times reported in December, comments on internet forums depicting the virus as a natural strain of the Chinese bacteria enterovirus, not a deadly form of human respiratory infection, have had alarming effects.

“Rumours about SARS deaths may lead people to shun hospitals,” said one comment on an internet forum, Xinhua News Agency reported. “People are scared to the point that they may have to stay at home with their relatives because they fear their lives may be endangered,” added another.

The government’s crackdown on rumour-mongering on the internet is part of a broader anti-spam effort.

Spending two decades as a government communications unit, the propaganda department has steadily risen in influence over the ruling Communist Party and directed its reach out into the broader public. The department’s propaganda message dominated the news conferences held during China’s recently concluded 19th National Congress, where China’s new generation of leaders was installed and a new premier was chosen.

Although any media critic would dismiss “curiously coincidental” coincidences, such forces, says Russell Wohl, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, aren’t uncommon in the realm of propaganda.

Like almost all other Chinese citizens, his Chinese name is censored on Weibo (Chinese social media site). In the past year, the government increased the oversight it imposes on internet sites, imposing sharp limits on what can be posted online. The few published examples of sensitive postings on social media, Wohl noted, prompted protest from journalists and bloggers who note that the government often ignores or refrains from punishing people who spread sensitive information that is not published.

In Wohl’s view, the government will only avoid increasing paranoia by convincing the public that the online rumour-mongering is not helping the SARS problem but rather is contributing to it. Many observers suggest that the recent government moves in this regard are part of an effort to placate social media by reducing the likelihood that there will be repeats of the sort of government control that was instituted during China’s last long SARS outbreak.

The question, in Wohl’s opinion, is whether such attempts to control internet rumours will help those trying to help prevent SARS and instead exacerbate the problem.