It’s a viscerally emotive picture. A woman who appears to be pregnant lies on the floor of a subway station. It was taken on July 21, after a mob attack in the Yuen Long district of Hong Kong left at least 45 people injured — including the woman, a civilian who had been caught up in the attack and became known locally as “the woman in white” or “big belly lady,” slang for “pregnant lady” in Cantonese.
On social media, posts alleging that she had suffered a miscarriage were shared thousands of times. As more footage emerged, public outrage intensified over the Yuen Long violence, and towards the police for their alleged failure to protect victims from the baton-wielding attackers, who appeared to target protesters returning home from a march.
— Suzuko Hirano 平野鈴子🇯🇵 (@suzutaro26) July 22, 2019
But then came the counternarrative. She wasn’t pregnant, people claimed, and her alleged miscarriage was a politically motivated rumor. Though local media claim to have confirmed her pregnancy and the safety of the baby, the truth remains contested. Either way, the incident clearly illustrates the power of unverified online rumors to shape the narrative driving the city’s worst political crisis in decades. Mass protests began more than two months ago over a controversial bill which would allow residents to be extradited to face trial in mainland China.
The bill has since been shelved, but the uproar stoked a wider civil unrest that shows no sign of abating. On the streets, protesters and police face off each week with escalating violence. Online, an equally bitter battle is being waged using the weapon of misinformation. Just like the protests and clashes, fake news is threatening Hong Kongers’ unity and safety — and there is no end to it in sight.
How fake news spread and spiraled
In Hong Kong, there’s virtually no way to avoid misinformation. In the subway, fake news is anonymously AirDropped onto commuters’ phones. Rumors and speculation posted by both individuals and local blogs are plastered over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and shared on messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Their controversial content is the topic of daily conversation citywide.