Not Even Chinese Censorship Prevents Fake News
They just have a different name for it.
Visit Chinese websites these days and you’ll see tweets in which Donald Trump appears to be taking sides in the rivalry between two Shanghai universities:
realdonaldtrump thinks Shanghai Jiaotong University is better than its crosstown rival.
And issuing proclamations on his musical preferences:
realdonaldtrump’s ‘favorite boy band’ is the South Korean group GOT7: ‘They are so cute!’
As you’ve probably guessed, the tweets aren’t real. (Of course they’re not?—?the president who doesn’t read books sure as hell wouldn’t know about a South Korean boy band). But where did these tweets come from? China’s news censorship program is widely known and derided in the West. So how did these fake tweets —more than a million of them?—?slip past the censors?
The so-called “Great Firewall of China” prevents its citizens from accessing foreign news sites, Facebook and Twitter (unless you’re rich, foreign, or staying in a five-star hotel?—?and even then, access is intermittent). China employs a staff of censors to delete stories the government doesn’t want people to read: about violence between Han Chinese and Muslims in its Xinjiang province, the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, democracy protests in Hong Kong or the religion of Falun Gong, which Beijing considers a threat to Communist party rule.
So with all that suppression, you’d think China wouldn’t have a fake news problem, right?
People know the government operates or controls most news outlets in China. So many don’t trust what they see, hear and read.
In 2008, Chinese media reported that the cancer-causing chemical melamine contaminated milk, baby formula and pet food. The stories were true?—?the milk my then-wife drank every day was pulled from store shelves. But then Chinese web users?—?mostly on Weibo, a sort of Chinese Twitter?—?circulated stories about other supposedly contaminated foods. The stories incited a good deal of panic.
“The Party found it unmanageable,” says Trey Menefee, a social scientist at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. “They started cracking down [on rumors about contaminated food and other topics]; some people even went to jail.”
Menefee says the rumor-mongering eventually subsided, but not completely. It moved to Weixin, a Facebook-like service. Weixin users post only to their friend groups rather than the whole internet.
“Things don’t spread as fast [on Weixin]. Not like 50,000 shares in 20 minutes” on Weibo, says Menefee.
After President Xi Jinping took power in 2013, he cracked down on media outlets, both domestic and foreign, that undertook investigative journalism. This led Chinese people to distrust the media even more.
Many Chinese regard all news the way we regard “fake news” in America, Menefee says. In such an environment, rumors proliferate.
While many rumors are harmless, many are not. In the US, the #PizzaGate fake-news story alleged Hillary Clinton was implicated in a child sex ring operated out of a pizza parlor. That ended violently, when Edgar Welch, in an attempt at vigilante justice, shot up the joint with an assault rifle. No one was injured.
But in China, rumors lead to deaths all the time.
In China’s western Xinjiang province, the Muslim Uighur minority is fighting a decades-long struggle against discrimination and marginalization. The conflict gained global attention in 2009, when 200 people died in clashes between Uighurs and ethnic Chinese.
Menefee and other China watchers say Beijing maintains a total lockdown on reporting from Xinjiang. Rumors fill this vacuum. Often a rumor is posted online, saying one side killed someone from the other side. The rumor sparks a violent reprisal or an attack on government facilities. “There would be like 50 dudes with machetes attacking police stations, and no one knows why,” Menefee says.
Beijing is cracking down harder. In December, state media warned that anyone who circulated an online rumor in Xinjiang could be fined up to $72,700. The definition of “rumor” is predictably broad?—?including anything that is “destructive of religious harmony” or “spreads ethnic hatred and division.” The government also warned websites could be shut down.
Perhaps fearing a nationwide crackdown that might hurt their subscriber growth, some Chinese web companies are trying to fix the rumor problem on their own. WeChat, China’s biggest social networking app, said in November it had deleted more than a million links to “rumors.”
Beijing is also on the verge of implementing a real-names policy for social media users. If that comes to pass, the government will know who posts what. It’s a safeguard against “fake news” and “rumor” but it’s also a major threat to anyone who posts something political that the central government doesn’t like.