2019-01-05 11:15:19 Commentary

Recently, experts around the world have growing concerns about the problem of so-called deepfakes, in which advanced machine learning techniques are used to create highly realistic fake photos or videos of public figures. But for years, China’s been struggling with its own, low-tech version of this problem: Known colloquially as “public figure spoofing,” it involves online writers taking advantage of the country’s diffuse, repost-heavy internet ecosystem to pass off rumors and clickbait as the work of beloved celebrities or trusted experts.

While not unique to China, there are two reasons the practice has proven particularly effective here. First, many Chinese believe that successful people are more insightful and eloquent, in part due to their supposed natural intelligence. A number of high-profile business leaders and celebrities have amassed large followings on social media, and their words are given more weight than those of an ordinary citizen. The sizable demand for their thoughts and ideas makes them an appealing target for clickbait writers.

The other reason is that the Chinese education system teaches students from a young age to treat quotes from well-known figures as authoritative sources. There’s no need to explain or analyze what was said or why it’s important: The presence of such a quote alone is enough to prove an essay writer’s literary acumen. As a result, students habitually adorn their essays with pearls of wisdom from famous people, further increasing the demand for pithy sayings on a wide variety of subjects, while doing little to encourage people to think critically about what’s being said.

Like their better-known sibling — the “please share” posts — the premise of public figure spoofing is simple. Unscrupulous writers take advantage of the abovementioned biases by passing off paragraphs or even whole articles as the words of a well-known public figure. Their goal? To increase reads and shares — and thereby profits.

For an example of how this works in practice, we need only look at Chinese scientist Tu Youyou’s 2015 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In it, Tu soberly reflects on the years she spent researching and developing anti-malarial drugs based on artemisia, a plant byproduct and traditional Chinese medicine ingredient.

But despite widespread media coverage, few Chinese ever read her words. Instead, in the days following her speech, social media feeds were flooded by another, very different speech purportedly given by Tu. Titled “Thanks to Artemisia and Four People.” It was quickly shared over 10,000 times.

Even after Xiang’s version was shown to be a fake, some netizens continued to comment positively on it.

Unfortunately, it was a total fake. After media outlets noticed the discrepancy, a short investigation uncovered the culprit: a writer named Xiang Junping. Despite publicly apologizing to Tu for his actions, Xiang also defended his decision to rewrite her speech. Apparently, he felt that her words were “too academic for the public to understand.” With an eye for spicing them up for public consumption, he decided to help her out. “[My] intention in writing this acceptance speech was to express the awe I’ve felt for scientists since childhood,” he said.

While no doubt motivated by the best of intentions, Xiang’s version of the speech is exaggerated, sensationalized, and occasionally incoherent. In particular, it is chock-full of florid phrases and overemotional tripe like: “Artemisia leaves are tranquil, so I enjoy tranquility; artemisia flowers are modest, so I act modestly; artemisia stems are upright, so I seek uprightness.” In other words, it bears little resemblance to anything a respected scientist like Tu might write.

Tu is not the only prominent Chinese academic to have their name slapped on an article written by someone else. In October 2015, an article attributed to the respected historian Zi Zhongyun went viral on social media. Titled “The Degeneration of the Chinese Spirit Began With the Enslavement of Its Teachers,” this provocative piece claims that, “Chinese society has fallen under a severe degree of enslavement, and the most affected group is its teachers — the architects of the Chinese national spirit.”

In a statement published on her social media account, however, Zi said she had nothing to do with the piece. A reporter from Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, investigated the matter and discovered that the article had first appeared in May 2014, under a different byline. But the damage had already been done. According to contemporaneous reports, by the time Zi came forward to debunk the article, a quick check for the article’s title on the Chinese search engine Baidu came up with more than 120,000 results.

Afterward, Zi found multiple other articles, speeches, and quotes that had been falsely attributed to her. “They are completely fabricated, take my words out of context and spice them up, or are deliberately sensationalized with exaggerated headlines,” she wrote. “As long as your own opinion is fair and forthright, and you’re willing to be held accountable for your own words, why would you attribute it to someone else?”

What Zi fails to understand is that these writers are exploiting the reputations of well-known figures in a bid to attract views, not to express their personal opinions. Clicks bring in money, and few things bring in clicks like celebrities. The publishers of such material hardly care what’s being said, so long as the articles go viral.

The sad thing is, the fakers are merely responding to public demand. Xiang’s histrionics, for example, seem to resonate more with audiences than Tu’s linguistically plain, but measured, objective, and appropriate speech. Even after Xiang’s version was shown to be a fake, some netizens continued to comment positively on it. “Whatever the original motivation, I think this folksy speech is very touching and well-written,” wrote one user.

For now, I see little option but to rely on traditional media to reveal such works for what they are: falsehoods. But for the long term, China must invest in education. Until students are taught to think critically about what they read — Why would a respected scientist accept a Nobel Prize with a half-baked motivational speech about how she tries to imitate a plant? — and instead appreciate less sensationalist, more meaningful works, it will be hard to truly address the problem.

Translator: Clemens Ruben; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Shi Yangkun and Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)