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Liz Carter senior contributor

Should the Chinese Government “Fight Back” Against Rumors on Social Media?

The characters on the tongue reads "Internet rumors"

Part of our job here at Tea Leaf Nation is trying our best to separate real (often censored) news from unsubstantiated rumors on China’s social media (e.g. see here and here). We wonder if there is any truth in the piece below that appeared on August 17 in Beijing Daily, a Party-controlled paper known to take a hard-line stance on issues such as freedom of speech. Tea Leaf Nation has translated the editorial in full, along with some comments by netizens and a brief analysis. Within the article, links and emphasis are the translator’s own.

We Must Do Our Best to Keep Fake News From Fermenting For Too Long (on Weibo)

8/17/2012 02:26:10 Beijing Time  

Source: Beijing Daily, by Zhang Di

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) recently announced the so-called “six restrictions on television dramas” were not real. These restrictions, which made a lot of people in the industry worried out of their minds, turned out to be totally fake. On the subject of fake news, there are two other recent cases. The first is “a foreign girl in Shanghai saves an elderly person and laments the Chinese for being heartless,” and another is “a girl in Panjin is raped by the police chief and others.” After going viral, these were proven to be fake stories.

Fake news is so widespread these days that it has become a societal phenomenon, especially in emerging online platforms like Weibo. All kinds of information gets mixed up together, and in the confusion, it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish real and fake. In the past few years, the harmful impact fake news has on society can be clearly seen. It has destroyed reputations and corporate images, and even set off panic in society. The accounts of its negative impact are too many to name. But this being the case, why do some people still insist on spewing this nonsense? How can fake news be so popular and spread so rampantly? This is something we should be concerned about.

We must see that as competition becomes more and more fierce in the media sector, some media outlets lose their heads in the pursuit of their own interests, abandoning professional ethics. In their opinion, it doesn’t matter if news is true or not; as long as it attracts an audience and attention it’ll do. As for rumors that circulate online, there is no system in place to tell true from fake at all. People plagiarize all the time, using new and old stories alike. People take the most ridiculous crap and spin it into eye-catching so-called “news.” It’s these kinds of baseless, sensationalizing methods, and netizens’ promoting and hyping anything outrageous, that allow fake news to make headlines. The media have gotten all the attention they need, while the truth drifts farther and farther out of society’s sights.

If you take another look at the methods for making these fake news stories, it’s not difficult to see that there are certainly strategies and established formats for them. In the examples I gave earlier, you can see “restrictions” “the heartless Chinese” and “police chief.” These consciously stressed words are all meant to appeal to the sentiments of today’s cynical and embittered society. That’s why this kind of news, while it gains so much attention, is also reposted and commented on with such fervor and stereotypical opinions. As the tides rise and the currents grow stronger, public opinion can eventually grow so strong that it encourages others to believe. For some people, it’s as if reality doesn’t exist at all. After the fact, it doesn’t matter whether people there on the scene work hard to dispel the rumors or disprove them, it’s almost impossible to achieve.

It’s also important not to ignore how widespread fake news really is. This is due in large part to the failure of relevant authorities to respond appropriately. In the face of fake news, some government departments are not quick enough to take a clear stance or dispel rumors. They insist on waiting until public discourse has spiraled out of control to do anything, and by then, it’s too late. In some cases they can’t say what they mean clearly, or they are overcautious, and in the end not only have the rumors not been dispelled, they’ve generated an entirely new layer of hype. The longer the story goes, the darker it gets, and there’s no saving it. In truth, it’s because of the methods for dealing with this kind of public discourse aren’t yet fully developed that fake news has a chance to grow and ferment, greatly obscuring reality.

In today’s China, with all of these diverging interests and the complexity of the structure of society, it’s unavoidable that there will be all kinds of fake news, which will put a great strain on society’s material and psychological resources. We can’t back down in the face of this – we must fight back harder against fake news. Only when there is a system for correcting fake news in a timely manner throughout all of society will we have a healthier environment for development.

The article above blames China’s version of Twitter, or Weibos, netizens, short-sighted journalists, and cynicism for this fake news crisis, but does not address the role that an information vacuum plays in creating a demand for information by any means necessary.

Comments were disabled on at least five of the websites that reprinted this article, but on China’s Twitter-like microblogging platforms, a few had voiced an opinion. Wrote @云中一滴水007 on Tencent Weibo, “Fight fake news, fight fake harmony.” On Sina Weibo, @emengweb wrote “Are you trying to say that you’re going to expand the list of ‘sensitive words’?” @柯雷行者 tweets, “It might be easier for you to list the real news items that you have published.” {{1}}[[1]]你列举一下你这里曾发过的真新闻可能更容易[[1]]

Perhaps most interesting was a seemingly unrelated comment on the Beijing Daily’s posting of the article by @就是八不 that simply read: “Mei Ninghua [the editor-in-chief of Beijing Daily] was removed from his post as Beijing Daily’s Party committee secretary and made assistant Party committee secretary.” Official media gave no explanation for Mei Ninghua’s demotion, which was mentioned only briefly by the Beijing Daily in a list of 101 recent promotions, demotions and removals; importantly, no reason is given for any of the changes. According to Radio Free International, Mei Ninghua recently fell out of favor due to his conservatism and backing of Bo Xilai, the prominent Chinese politician who was purged earlier this year.

Perhaps Beijing Daily should not let this piece of “fake news” ferment for too long as well? 

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.
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  • jahar

    If the government wants to cut down on fake news, they should promote real news

  • jahar

    If the government wants to cut down on fake news, they should promote real news

  • skc

    Information vacuum (which is created when the CCP chooses to remain mum in the face of bad news rather than own up to it and take the PR hit up-front) is part of it. The other part is the inherent distrust people have towards anything coming from “official” (read government) sources. If Beijing Daily wants to blame somebody, blame the history of the CCP. They made their bed, and they really shouldn’t bitch so much about laying in it.

  • skc

    Information vacuum (which is created when the CCP chooses to remain mum in the face of bad news rather than own up to it and take the PR hit up-front) is part of it. The other part is the inherent distrust people have towards anything coming from “official” (read government) sources. If Beijing Daily wants to blame somebody, blame the history of the CCP. They made their bed, and they really shouldn’t bitch so much about laying in it.

  • ClausRasmussen

    >> [...] some government departments are not quick enough to take a clear stance or dispel rumors. They insist on waiting until public discourse has spiraled out of
    control to do anything, and by then, it’s too late. [...] in the
    end not only have the rumors not been dispelled, they’ve generated an
    entirely new layer of hype

    Is this really Beijing Daily ?! While I don’t agree with the authors remedies (shoot the messenger – Weibo etc.) his analysis is spot on.

    Chinese bureaucracy generally sucks at PR, but some local agencies/police are using Weibo to counter fake stories on their own tweet. It is interesting because it takes the battle to the source of the problem instead of publishing something in a newspaper that no one read or trust, and also because it doesn’t conflict directly with the lack of transparency in Chinese administration.

    Excellent translation, btw.

  • ClausRasmussen

    >> [...] some government departments are not quick enough to take a clear stance or dispel rumors. They insist on waiting until public discourse has spiraled out of
    control to do anything, and by then, it’s too late. [...] in the
    end not only have the rumors not been dispelled, they’ve generated an
    entirely new layer of hype

    Is this really Beijing Daily ?! While I don’t agree with the authors remedies (shoot the messenger – Weibo etc.) his analysis is spot on.

    Chinese bureaucracy generally sucks at PR, but some local agencies/police are using Weibo to counter fake stories on their own tweet. It is interesting because it takes the battle to the source of the problem instead of publishing something in a newspaper that no one read or trust, and also because it doesn’t conflict directly with the lack of transparency in Chinese administration.

    Excellent translation, btw.

  • Hua Qiao

    Today’s rumor is tomorrow’s news. Just ask Woodward and Bernstein.

  • Hua Qiao

    Today’s rumor is tomorrow’s news. Just ask Woodward and Bernstein.

  • Jim Liu

    Liz,

    1) it is is true that there is vacuum in Chinese news and there is no enough disclosure.

    But 2) it is also true that what Beijing daily said is true. There are just way too many fake news on Weibo.

    Worse than that, so many westerner bloggers and writers copy and paste stories based on Weibo without verification.
    Both facts are desired criticism. One does not accuse others. And you seem to do that in your blogger. For that, you also desired criticism.

    Also, when you quote Radio free International, at least be objective. At least you should give disclaim that Radio Free international is funded by US government and was part of cold war legacy. Its source is highly unreliable.