Did you know that getting COVID-19 can make women infertile? That former U.S. president Barack Obama was arrested? Or perhaps you were too busy reading how Amazon now sells black toilet paper out of political correctness or Greece’s red light districts will limit patrons to 15-minute visits each as a COVID-19 precautionary measure.
Had enough yet? How about this one? U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is Hunanese, his father was a renegade bandit and a landlord, and that’s why he hates China.
Those are just some of the headlines and reports I’ve seen over the past couple months, scrolling through my parents’ social media posts, chat groups of secondary school classmates, microblogging platform Weibo, and Jinri Toutiao — China’s most popular news portal. A few were brought to my attention by my 9-year-old daughter.
They have, without exception, garnered widespread readership, been shared across social media, and generated significant discussion.
And they are, without exception, fake.
There is a real demand in China for international news. If anything, the country’s growing international influence and engagement has made the subject more attractive, not less. But increasingly, this massive demand for news about the outside world exceeds what traditional channels alone can deliver, leaving the country’s media environment overrun with disinformation.
Fabricated or false new stories about international events rampage across the Chinese internet partly because of its hermetic environment, which limits readers’ ability to visit foreign websites and find out for themselves what is true or false. Language is another barrier. English may be a compulsory class in Chinese schools, but only a minority of people can fluently read foreign language news. Most simply read secondhand compilations and rundowns instead.
Then there is the country’s dearth of qualified foreign correspondents. Having failed to become true centers of knowledge production, staff at China’s news agencies abroad struggle to bring their understanding of other countries back to China and enrich people’s worldviews.
In shattering the monopoly on information once held by these news agencies, the internet has democratized content creation and dissemination. But it didn’t take long for some to realize that disinformation and conspiracy theories reeled in as much, if not more attention than more sober reporting — and ad revenue to boot. And whereas coverage of domestic issues is tightly regulated in the interests of maintaining social stability, regulators and the public alike take a far more relaxed stance toward international issues, especially as the public opinion climate increasingly turns against the West and its “white liberal” compradors.
Above: The screenshot on the left shows a fake report about Obama being arrested; The screenshot on the right shows a similar fake news report about Gina Haspel. Below: A screenshot of the original video shows it was taken out of context. From the website of China Fact Check
The trend has only become more prevalent this year with the explosion of what the World Health Organization termed an “infodemic” of disinformation about the coronavirus. The combination of information bubbles, selective or distorted reporting, and manipulation has only reinforced our distrust of neutral outlets. Today, many readers prefer to judge media on their “standpoint,” not the quality of their reporting, and polarization overwhelms levelheaded discussion.
Disinformation and political polarization are hardly unique to China, but those working in the Chinese news industry need to shoulder more responsibility for our failure to give diverse, varied perspectives on stories. This will become more pressing as China grows more powerful, if only because the citizens of an emerging superpower should have an understanding of the world that befits their status. Having accurate information about other countries is essential to adopting a rational, open-minded, tolerant worldview. Otherwise the barrage of disinformation will gradually distort the Chinese people’s knowledge of the world and hinder constructive dialogue between China and other nations.
So what can we do? As a former editor in Chinese media myself, I know from experience that traditional fact-checking methods, which rely on teams of specialized workers painstakingly querying each claim made in an article, are wholly inadequate for the tidal wave of misinformation flooding our social media feeds. Instead, I decided to try something new. This year I launched China Fact Check, which takes a digital, new media approach to the issue. The idea is to create an online platform to foster collaborative relationships between three parties key to stopping fake news: universities, the media, and social media platforms.
My rationale for including the first party, universities, is simple: Fact-checking should start with young people. They’re at a crucial stage in their intellectual development, and it’s important to encourage and support them in improving their media literacy and cultivate their ability to differentiate between the trustworthiness of different sources.
They’re also extremely helpful volunteers. College students possess a natural familiarity with the internet, and many of them are also fluent in foreign languages, allowing them to check the sourcing on reports in the original.
Supplementing their youthful enthusiasm, I have been joined in my project by a group of veteran international news reporters and editors, who have volunteered to form and run a quality audit committee to ensure fact-checking standards and quality. Despite the stigmatization of the “mainstream media” both domestically and globally, professionally trained media professionals still have the responsibility to act against fake news and disinformation.
The third piece of the puzzle is the trickiest. A 2019 study of 10 Chinese cities found that 99.82% of respondents got news from their smartphones. Roughly 75% listed chat groups on messaging app WeChat as a news source; 20% listed Weibo. Television and print media accounted for only 6.5% and less than 1% of respondents’ news consumption, respectively.
In short, companies like ByteDance, Sina, and Tencent are not just tech firms; they’re major media outlets as well. But compared with their international counterparts like Facebook and Twitter, they have yet to come under intense public pressure over disinformation. Meanwhile, as algorithms mature and become more accurate, the mutual dependence between users, content creators, and those platforms has only deepened. Users get a rush from reading their tailored news feeds, while the latter two groups reap the profits.
It’s not always that Chinese social media platforms fail to give due attention to disinformation; it’s just that they typically attempt to solve the problem the way they approach everything else: with messy, opaque regulations and conflicting standards. They remove some posts really quickly while leaving more radical content untouched. Tencent runs a database of rumors and fake news that will automatically alert readers if they’ve read articles on WeChat later flagged as misinformation. Yet, because platforms opt first and foremost to work with government agencies and mainstream media outlets, it’s difficult for third-party fact-checking agencies to get their work noticed or included in these databases.
Still, it’s not completely hopeless. Disinformation is its own ecosystem, with mature mechanisms of production, sharing, and consumption. We have to acknowledge the collapse of our traditional media infrastructure and take an active role in building something new — an ecosystem for truth. That will require active participation from society; more responsible, engaged media outlets; and platforms willing to sacrifice revenue to ensure that the most widely shared news is also the most accurate.
I don’t want my child growing up on fake, skewed information that then shapes her outlook of the world. Who would?
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: DigitalVision Vectors/People Visual)