Xi Jinping, where were you the night of March 1? Yesterday, both domestic and foreign news outlets were reporting that the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping had taken a ride in a taxi cab that night; Hong Kong paper Ta Kung Pao broke the news on April 18, which was then picked up by all major news portals in mainland China and hotly discussed on Chinese social media. Today, however, these articles had all disappeared, and the top trending post on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, was a short notice issued by state-run Xinhua news service:
Xinhua: Ta Kung Pao’s April 18 report, ‘Beijing Brother’s Mysterious Encounter: General Secretary Xi Took My Taxi,’ has been reviewed and determined to be fake news.
The clarifying post by Xinhua became the number-one trending post on Weibo, despite having fewer retweets than an innocuous repost of a joke from 9gag, made by Kaifu Lee, former head of Google in China and Weibo celebrity. Lee’s post was visible just under the Xinhua report in the rankings for a short time, despite having far more retweets and comments. Even the third-hottest Weibo post, which criticized Chinese television for presenting an overly rosy view of society, had more retweets and comments than the Xinhua report.
The Xinhua report boasted only three comments at the time of this writing, one of which was a surprised emoticon; one of which was “cao,” Chinese for “f**k;” and one of which was the statement, “Comments aren’t allowed.”
Who’s in charge? Not the users
How, then, did Xinhua’s report top the rankings, when by all quantifiable metrics it should have been middle of the pack at best? With 46,000 retweets, it was well behind Kaifu Lee’s, with more than 50,000, and the third-hottest post, which had 64,000. According to Weibo’s official explanation, the “hot posts,” or trending posts, “are determined based on overall quality, for example, the number of retweets and comments, the time of the posting, and whether the content is good or bad.” In other words, the top 10 trending posts on Weibo are curated, not generated automatically. The fact that the correction to the Xi taxi story came from state-run Xinhua–must have pushed it to the top despite its lack in other categories.
In addition to pushing this post to the top, other posts about Xi and the cab ride report were scrubbed from the site. The name of the cab driver in question and other related phrases became banned search terms. General Secretary Xi was not mentioned in any of the other trending posts, and no related terms trended in any way.
Ta Kung Pao, which first broke the story, issued an apology:
We are deeply unsettled and filled with regret. It is highly unacceptable that such a huge piece of fake news appeared due to our … failure. For this, we sincerely apologize to our readers. We will reflect on this, and make it up to the public by upholding the principles of accuracy and caution in our future reporting.
This visible manipulation of social media is nothing new, nor are apologies by media outlets, which authorities have demanded in past instances. But the way the incident played out was unusual. A Xinhua reporter first confirmed the story with authorities before running it, only to retract the report and issue its final statement. The story was allowed to run wild, spreading through virtually all Chinese media outlets and even generating an op-ed on the Global Times website discussing Xi’s bravery. With no detailed explanation as to why the news was confirmed, then later denied, reported and then deleted, there is only speculation, and plenty of room for it.
It seems unlikely that the day of Xi-related coverage could have been a simple slip-up. Reports and articles about Chinese leaders, however low-level, are strictly controlled. For a story this big about China’s top leader to circulate so widely, it undoubtedly had to pass through a barrage of internal and external censorship committees. Yet somehow, this story hit newsstands and websites alike for almost 24 hours before being shut down by Xinhua’s terse statement.
The South China Morning Post conjectured that the entire incident might have been a “PR stunt gone bad,” citing the Hong Kong paper Ta Kung Pao’s ties to the Communist Party. Or perhaps it was true, but flopped. After the initial story circulated online, many Web users had made jokes about the cab driver’s tale and voiced suspicions that it was fictitious. Others simply thought it was no news at all: “The story of Xi Jinping’s ‘passing among the people in disguise’ is a top-down method of control,” wrote one, “This model of management has existed in China for thousands of years, it’s nothing to be proud of.”
While most believed the story to be false – one person even cited the fact that the note the cab driver allegedly received from Xi contained an incorrect character – others still said it was difficult to say. “True or false,” commented one netizen, “It can’t be reported.”