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2018-01-20 13:28:35

If you believed all the fake news stories from China in 2017, you would have a bleak impression of the country as an absurd, chaotic place. From children dying from sun exposure after stealing fruit to government-mandated evacuations of Chinese nationals from India, the year was rife with rumor.

On Wednesday, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper reported that the internet issues division of the Shanghai police investigated and closed 390 cases related to online rumors in 2017.

The report follows hot on the heels of a busted rumor on Wednesday, when a Shanghai resident surnamed Jiang fabricated an assault story on social network WeChat. Jiang posted that a 50-year-old man had beaten up an 8-year-old on a local bus because the child refused to give up his seat, and that later the mother avenged her son by poking out the man’s eye. The post was never substantiated.

Many untruths with legs on China’s internet resonated with readers because they painted a vivid “David versus Goliath” narrative — consumers calling out big businesses, for example, or children being harmed by institutions — and connected with real issues such as food safety or child abuse.

“Those in power are going through a credibility crisis, so regardless of whether rumors are true or false, people are happy to assume [power brokers] are telling lies and doing wrong,” Hu Chunyang, a professor specializing in new media Fudan University in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone. “The pressures of our current social hierarchy fuel wild rumors that people believe without verifying.”

China’s rapid development has produced problems of injustice and inequality, Hu explained, that people often respond to by generalizing from their individual experiences, or sentimentalizing matters of fact — so much so that internet companies have had to take action.

In September 2017, search engine Baidu added a “rumor” tag to fake news, and internet giant Tencent — which owns the ubiquitous social network WeChat — has its own security and risk management center to combat the problem. The company uses analytical tools to sweep WeChat for rumors, and also employs third-party companies to verify content and publish clarifications on its mini apps.

Tencent announced that between Jan. 1 and Dec. 20, 2017 — when its report on fake news management was published — it had intercepted over 500 million rumors and clarified 800 million rumors on the social platforms it operates.

Liu Jun, the head of a Shanghai police squad responsible for online issues, told The Paper that different factors can prompt netizens to create or unintentionally disseminate rumors. Rumors that exploit the kindness and sympathy of strangers — for example, children being kidnapped or hurt — readily gain traction online, he said.

Liu mentioned one case where a years-old rumor about a missing 5-year-old girl went viral — but local police later confirmed that there was no such incident. The three netizens who had disseminated the rumor were only given a verbal warning by police, however, as they had deleted their posts after seeing the official clarification. Yet Sixth Tone’s search still found several related posts on Weibo, with only some tagged “fake news” by site moderators.

Even when proven false, rumors can linger online with enviable longevity — and even some official bodies have been caught in the web of online deceit.

Last week, a state-run magazine was dragged into a farce staged by fans of a famous Chinese rapper, who misidentified the media outlet as a restaurant and smeared its reputation. Around the same time, an esteemed math professor from Peking University called out local officials who had made up a rags-to-riches story about him for use as feel-good propaganda.

“It’s nearly impossible [for social platforms] to stamp out rumors,” Wei Wuhui, a journalism and communications professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, told Sixth Tone.

At most, Wei said, platforms could tag falsehoods with a “fake news” label after investing substantial resources in research and investigation. But in many cases, the damage is already done: By the time fake news is proved false, most netizens have already moved on to the next big story.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: VCG)