CHINA - A "crisis of trust" fueled a heated discussion over now-disproved reports that a Chinese woman intentionally threw herself in front of a foreigner's motorbike on Tuesday to extort money from him, experts say.
The woman, surnamed Li, was knocked over by a foreigner when she was on a pedestrian crosswalk in Beijing's Chaoyang district on Monday morning. The woman and the foreigner then argued while many bystanders looked on.
The woman was taken to a hospital after police arrived. The foreigner later gave the woman 1,800 yuan (S$370) as compensation in the hospital.
Meanwhile, a photographer who happened to pass by took pictures of the foreigner and the woman while they were arguing and uploaded them to an online photo platform.
Though the photographer didn't see the accident, he wrote in the photos' captions that the woman fell when a foreigner passed her on his motorbike and asked the foreigner to take responsibility for her fall when the foreigner came back to help her.
The pictures soon aroused much attention and became the hottest topic on Sina Weibo, a popular micro-blogging service.
The photos showed the woman holding the motorbike and trying to prevent the foreigner from leaving. One picture showed that the woman had torn the foreigner's coat.
The post also said the woman's hospital examination showed that she wasn't injured at all.
Many Internet users subsequently criticised the woman, saying she "lost face for all Chinese".
But their feelings changed when it was learned that the foreigner had really knocked the woman down.
Videos that showed the foreigner cursing and swearing at the woman in English and Mandarin were also uploaded to the Internet.
The foreigner was driving an unlicensed motorbike and injured Li, Beijing police said, adding that they confiscated the motorbike.
In an interview with Beijing News, Li said she was angry about the online comments directed against her.
"I never intended to extort the foreigner. I only became emotional after the foreigner said I was trying to extort him," she said.
Wang Sixin, professor at Communication University of China, said the incident, which is actually not a big deal, created so much concern because of a "crisis of trust".
The incident is a reminder of similar cases in which supposedly good Samaritans who offered help to people in need were then held responsible.
Foreigners are usually considered honest, and the stereotype caused people to blame the woman, Wang said.
Wang said the spread of the incident in micro blogs just sparked people's anger over such cases before.
The incident is a lesson to netizens that pictures, often shot from deceiving angles, may not tell the whole story and they should be careful before drawing conclusions, he said.
"People should be aware that there may be other possibilities," Wang said.
Yu Hai, sociology professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said people considered the original description of the incident true as they made judgments based on similar cases that had happened before, and the involvement of a foreigner sparked more anger, Yu said.
But Yu said that one shouldn't blame netizens too much for their faulty judgment. The netizens' response sent a signal that Chinese disdain dishonesty and that's a plus to some extent, Yu said.
Yu said the photographer who first published the story should be blamed.
"He added information with his imagination to give the story a dramatic twist to draw people's attention," Yu said.
The photographer published a letter of apology to Li on Beijing News' website on Wednesday evening, saying he "used imprecise, not detailed, biased and exaggerated descriptions, which led to turmoil on the Internet.
"I now realise I was wrong," he wrote.