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    Counting Stars: How Fake Data Distorts the Celebrity Landscape

    Young Chinese are overestimating the importance of social media traffic to stardom — and underestimating talent.

    The anonymous netizen who questioned 40-year-old Taiwanese singer Jay Chou’s continued popularity in a now-deleted social media post last month probably didn’t mean to set off an intergenerational flame war. But as with most things on the internet, matters quickly spun out of control.

    According to reports, the kerfuffle began when a user on social media platform Douban questioned both the enthusiasm and the very existence of Chou’s followers on Twitter-like Weibo. In response, slighted fans of the singer, who was once — and apparently still is — one of the biggest names in the Chinese-language music industry, orchestrated a movement to propel Chou to the top of Weibo’s “super topics” community page. When Chou’s supporters finally toppled the reigning 21-year-old “little fresh meat” singer Cai Xukun from his perch, it was hailed as a rare victory for the country’s millennials over the more plugged-in Generation Z.

    But to be honest, while it’s nice as a millennial to see Chou’s popularity validated, I’m more interested in what the controversy says about the always-online social media bubble so many young Chinese seem to live in these days. Chou isn’t the only middle-aged star to be prematurely dismissed. When “Wolf Warrior 2” smashed box office records two years ago, some young netizens expressed amazement that an actor with a social media presence as moribund as Wu Jing’s could headline China’s highest grossing movie of all time. Why do so many members of Generation Z mistake social media rankings and trending topics for real-life popularity?

    When answering this question, most critics tend to focus on personal qualities, criticizing the “foolishness” or “idiocy” of contemporary idol fandom. But I think this is a misunderstanding, not to mention unfair to young people. Generation Z overestimates the importance and relevance of social media traffic because that’s the world they were born into. Unlike those born in the ’80s, they are digital natives, and many have spent their whole lives in a highly online environment.

    It’s only natural that their perceptions and understanding of the world would be shaped by this reality — and that it would influence how they experience fandom culture. When I was young, we expressed love for our favorite stars by going to physical stores and buying cassette tapes, CDs, and posters of our favorite artists. The Generation Z version of fan culture has moved online, where it’s expressed by buying digital albums, forwarding social media posts, or starting fan pages.

    The first, and arguably best-known beneficiary of China’s new-style fan culture is Lu Han, a former member of the popular boy group EXO. Lu was still relatively unknown outside of music circles when, in 2015, his fans propelled him into the limelight by leaving 100 million comments on one of his Weibo posts. When his 2015 solo album, “Reloaded I,” dropped, fans rallied to preorder 100,000 digital copies in 10 minutes, and the record sold 880,000 copies on its first day of release.

    If you were to ask the average Chinese, I’d wager few of them could name a single Lu Han song, but they’d almost certainly know who he is. In the absence of spectacular musical talent, his fans were still able to make him a superstar — and one of the richest Chinese celebrities under 30.

    There’s nothing particularly wrong about this. The problem isn’t that young Chinese care that much about social media rankings, but that so much of the underlying data used to determine stardom these days is junk.

    There are several commonly used metrics of popularity in China, most of them centered on Weibo. If you want to get a quick snapshot of an individual’s influence, you can look at the site’s trending topic rankings, check how many followers they have, or count how often their posts are forwarded, commented on, and liked.

    These statistics are important to stars because the more traffic they generate, the more endorsements they can collect, the more shows they can book, and the more people will know their name. And name recognition, in turn, boosts traffic numbers, contributing to a virtuous cycle.

    As for their followers, fandom culture gives young Chinese a kind of collective experience that can be hard to find in modern society. Compared with those born even just a generation prior, they are more likely to have grown up financially secure and materially comfortable. They are therefore less concerned with their immediate material needs and more interested in finding ways to use their resources to achieve self-actualization.

    Participating in fandom culture is one way to do so. Pushing one’s preferred idol or star to the top of the social media charts gives fans a rarified feeling of accomplishment, and fandom itself provides young Chinese with a digital community of like-minded individuals with whom they can associate and identify.

    Because of the importance of social media traffic to both the entertainment industry and public, agencies, management companies, and passionate fans have come up with ways to artificially goose fandom numbers. Now there’s an entire commercial ecosystem catering to those looking to buy a visibility boost. Earlier this year, four people were arrested for using bot accounts to like and share Weibo posts by Cai Xukun, the 21-year-old singer who later lost his spot on the super topics chart to Chou. And a February investigative report by China Central Television into social media traffic for eight entertainers found that much of it was fake.

    And that, not the existence of digital fandom itself, is what worries me. If the data upon which we base our impressions is false, then we’re living in a “Truman Show” version of the world: We think what we see is real, but everything around us is being manipulated. This is doubly true for young fans, for whom this traffic is so crucial to their identity.

    Meanwhile, stars no longer have any incentive to improve or produce high-quality work. Lu Han still doesn’t have a signature single to his name, but it doesn’t matter: His fans aren’t there for his music, but for him. They’ll buy whatever he endorses; so why should he worry about the quality of his work?

    The authorities have even started reprimanding television and film production companies for paying huge sums to mediocre talents based on their social media followings — which is possible because of the way Chinese fandom works, guaranteeing a secure source of revenue for whatever the idols are in, even if they can’t act. This becomes doubly ridiculous if the underlying social media data is fake.

    Popping this bubble will require not just legal measures, such as banning companies that run bot accounts, but also pressure on platforms like Weibo to fulfill their social responsibilities and crack down on fake traffic.

    At the same time, fans must rethink their relationships with their favorite stars. Rather than help them cheat the system in morally dubious ways, fans should encourage and expect celebrities to improve. Data alone cannot make someone an idol. First they have to be worth idolizing.

    Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Left: A screenshot of Cai Xukun. From Bilibili; Right: A portrait of Jay Chou. Lin Jingyuan/VCG)