Several years ago, an intriguing headline circulating on social media caught my eye. “Even People’s Daily Is Fed Up!” it began, referring to the state-run newspaper. “China Mobile, Is This Really How You Do Business? If You Agree, Please Re-Share!” It was slightly catchier in the original Chinese, but only slightly.
Published by the public WeChat account for the Huatong Chamber of Commerce, the article revealed the not so shocking fact that cellular plans offered by state-owned phone company China Mobile are cheaper in Hong Kong than on the mainland. Curious, I skimmed through to the end of the article, where I found a string of pleas from the author, each more frantic than the last:
“I agree, I’ll share it!”
“Keep fighting, don’t just walk away!”
“In the name of the people, please keep sharing!!!”
“The rise of the Chinese nation can’t be achieved without your support. The things you share will live on forever!!! Share it! Share it!! Share it!!!”
The story was clearly clickbait, but the time I spent on the page wasn’t a complete waste. While glancing through, I noticed that the post had already been read by more than 100,000 people and liked over 1,000 times. My interest was piqued, and I decided to learn more about where such posts — which in Chinese are called yaoyan, typically translated as “rumor” — come from, and how they spread.
Deciding what constitutes a rumor can be a frustratingly difficult exercise. In their seminal 1951 article on the subject, the American sociologists Warren A. Peterson and Noel P. Gist define a rumor as “an unverified account or explanation of events, circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event, or issue of public concern.” However, in a country such as China, where official verification of even basic facts is often slow in coming — if it comes at all — this definition could be stretched to encompass just about anything.
There is also the matter of translation. In modern Chinese, yaoyan is an expansive term. It can describe everything from a rumor in the traditional sense to more modern spins on the genre, such as Trumpian “fake news” or good old-fashioned clickbait.
Rumors are not always a negative phenomenon, either; they can be a valuable conduit of information. Peterson and Gist themselves note that rumors can help people process and interpret difficult situations in the absence of an authoritative explanation.
Despite this — or perhaps because of it — sharing rumors can be risky business in China, and the government takes their spread quite seriously. Those found to have posted or reposted inflammatory rumors can be charged with defamation and sentenced to up to seven years in prison. Judging by my social media feed, however, this doesn’t seem to have had much of a chilling effect. If anything, China’s rumor mongers are growing increasingly brazen, as evidenced by what Chinese researchers have termed “please share” posts.
In its analysis of rumors found on the popular social media app WeChat, the Lab for Big Data and Communication at Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou identified “please share”-style articles as one of the primary conduits through which rumors are spread on the platform. The sharing of these articles on WeChat is encouraged in a variety of ways. Some require users to share the post to gain access to the full story; others appeal to readers’ pathos and patriotism with headlines like “If You Don't Share This, You’re Not Chinese”; and still more rip their tactics straight from old chain letters, instructing the superstitious to “share this message for a month of good luck.”
They are but modern, high-tech updates of the old schoolyard request to “Pass it on.” Yet the phrase “please share” wasn’t always associated with rumors. It was used first in so-called courtesy posts: entreaties to donate blood, pleas to give money to the poor, or requests to spread the word about a lost wallet or set of keys. Back then, the closest that “please share” posts came to the rumor mill was when they were used to spread information about potential — though often unverified — child abductions.
While it may have begun innocently enough, the technique was quickly adapted to hawk all sorts of dubiously sourced content. In particular, the phrase is commonly used on health, motivational, and lifestyle blogs, where calls to repost are attached to headlines ranging from the mildly sensational — “Doctors Have Banned These Seven Types of Meat for Being More Poisonous Than Arsenic!” — to the alarmist — “Don’t Let Your Child Drink Soda, It Could Give Them Leukemia! " — to the surreal — "Put an Unpeeled Onion in Your Room! The Effects Are Amazing!”
These ostensibly health-minded posts are used to spread all kinds of plausible-sounding pseudoscience. And, like similar articles spread on Facebook, they are particularly common on the feeds of WeChat’s middle-aged and elderly users, whose anxieties and lack of education are exploited to quickly inject a wide range of unscientific factoids into the popular discourse. The result is a veritable flood of crackpot articles on our social feeds explaining how everything from genetically modified food to heated floors can cause cancer.
In addition to heath misinformation, “please share” posts are also used in China to spread nationalistic and xenophobic talking points. There was a brief period when WeChat was inundated with headlines proclaiming that true patriots always ask for receipts when eating at McDonald’s or KFC. The authors of these posts claimed that, by not issuing receipts, Western restaurants were defrauding the Chinese government to the tune of hundreds of millions of yuan in tax revenue. Setting aside the question of what a Chinese patriot would be doing at a McDonald’s in the first place, in reality the two restaurants pay taxes on all sales, regardless of whether they issue receipts.
But while their content and target audience may vary, the motivation for these posts is always the same. They — and other rumor-mongering articles — are designed to maximize clicks, eyeballs, and thus profits.
Three years ago, The Beijing News did a deep dive into the rumor mill business model. The report showed how clickbait writers stretch facts and use exaggerated headlines — about “six-winged chickens” at KFC, for example, or botulism in processed foods — to lure in new readers and get current ones riled up enough to repost the article on social media. And with each share, their profits from advertising revenue increase.
As guilty as the writers of these articles are, however, it’s important to remember that these rumors are not flourishing in a vacuum. Our social media feeds are inundated with quack cures and pseudoscientific health tips in large part because such articles cater to a real need: readers’ — especially elderly ones’ — desire for educational, health-focused content. Likewise, the popularity of patriotic posts is more the result of growing nationalist sentiment — often stoked by state media — than the outcome of a coordinated campaign of xenophobia by clickbait writers. Meanwhile, the country’s official outlets, which are tasked with providing authoritative accounts and beating back rumors, sometimes struggle to convince skeptical audiences of their reliability.
Rumors in China are best understood as a product of the market economy. As such, the only thing they respond to is the law of supply and demand. Clickbait writers and rumor mongers don’t truly shape the public discourse; they merely fill in the gaps left by official outlets by preying on readers’ lack of sophistication. If we want to reduce the number of rumors circulating on Chinese social media, first we must reduce the demand for them.
Translator: Clemens Ruben; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A woman looks at her phone in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, Aug. 17, 2018. Zhang Heping/VCG)