Police in Wuchang, Hubei province posted news about a brutal murder to their Sina Weibo account on February 18.
The post described the startling way a 22-year-old man surnamed Hu stabbed and then decapitated Yao, the owner of a noodle shop, using a bladed weapon. Hu was under arrest at the time of the post.
But long before that story hit the police’s official channel or the Wuhan Evening News, numerous Weibo users who witnessed the scene had started to circulated photos and videos of the murder, which ended with Yao’s head being severed and thrown into a garbage can.
As the photos and videos spread, so too did wildly different accounts of the event written by self-proclaimed eyewitnesses.
Yao’s restaurant was located near Wuchang Train Station. Most descriptions of his murder said that Hu and Yao were fighting, and Hu took a knife and used it to hack Yao to death.
Local media in Sichuan reported that Hu was suffering from severe mental illness, but the Publicity Department of the Wuhan Police and Hubei Police said their detainee was never been evaluated by a doctor.
Other articles included extensive background research about both Yao and Hu, and the cause of their conflict seemed to change from one news source to another.
Some accounts mourned Yao, who was survived by his three children. But another cited a man surnamed Xiong, an alleged close friend of Yao, who said the noodle vendor only had one son.
Several articles said Hu flew into a rage because Yao charged 1 yuan more than the listed price for a bowl of noodles. One account elaborated, saying Yao ordered Hu to get out of his restaurant if he didn’t have the money for a bowl of noodles.
Huang Wenlong, a witness near the restaurant, said it was Hu who first said bad words and Yao who attempted to defend himself.
Another source, claiming to be an officer with the Wuhan police, told thePaper.cn that Hu didn’t go to the restaurant for noodles but to look for a job. Yao noticed Hu was behaving strangely and rejected him, leading to the fatal quarrel.
An officer surnamed Gong at the police’s Publicity Department said police would release more information as it became available. However, detailed information about the event appeared on social media long before police began to speak.
She Zongming, a commentator, said every new twist in the story was an attempt to update and correct information spread by online commentators. Another commentator, Cao Lin, said there were too many independent media outlets proclaiming their imagined scenarios as fact instead of investigating.
Cao lamented that Chinese media has become filled with second hand information, and its ability to dig out the truth has diminished.
Cao said many reporters shifted their focus to independent media, which is currently quite profitable. However, few have maintained a rigorous attachment to fact.