US fake news feeds information-hungry audience in China

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US fake news is infiltrating China, one of the most tightly controlled media environments on earth, as accounts set up to earn advertising revenue flood the country’s most popular social platforms with sensational content.

By pumping out “clickbait” stories on WeChat and Weibo, some channels have gained hundreds of thousands of followers, allowing them to sell advertising space.

In a country where access to many legitimate US news sources is blocked by the “Great Firewall”, fake news about American politics, often reinforcing longstanding Chinese suspicions about American biases, tends to bring in the most readers.

In a country where access to many legitimate US news sources is blocked by the “Great Firewall”, fake news about American politics, often reinforcing longstanding Chinese suspicions about American biases, tends to bring in the most readers.

The fake news phenomenon has even spawned a cottage industry of online fact-checkers who publish their findings on Chinese social media, debunking everything from commercials to commentary.

“People really want to read foreign media and outside sources but most people do not have the level of English needed to read primary documents,” said one, who declined to be named. “So readers turn to these and WeChat channels which supposedly take foreign news and translate it.” Duan Lian, founder of the Stop Foreign Rumours Centre, which has accounts on Weibo and WeChat, said he started fact-checking after the US presidential election because of the sheer number of false stories that were going viral.

Duan Lian, founder of the Stop Foreign Rumours Centre, which has accounts on Weibo and WeChat, said he started fact-checking after the US presidential election because of the sheer number of false stories that were going viral.

“I feel that, under such severely polluted circumstances, the general public cannot make accurate decisions any more,” he said.

One series of articles that took Chinese social media by storm described promises supposedly made by Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign to cap the ratio of Asian-American students at public universities. This infuriated Chinese readers.

Another claimed that the Clinton campaign had assassinated Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee, as revenge for supposedly leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks, a rumour popularised on US far-right websites. The killing of Rich last July in Washington is a crime that remains unsolved.

The spread of fake news in Chinese has been helped by a lack of cultural awareness. Last month a newspaper run by Xinhua, the state media agency, published a translation of a spoof article from The New Yorker claiming that President Donald Trump covers all White House phones with tinfoil. This was with reference to Mr Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations that Barack Obama, he former president, had wiretapped his communications.

This was not the first time such stories had been presented as fact in China. When The Onion, the US satirical site, named Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, as the sexiest man alive in 2012, the story took on a life of its own. It eventually become a straight news report in the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist party.

Fearing that they might be held to account for hosting false information, China’s tech groups have started investing in fact-checking operations.

Tencent, owner of WeChat, for instance, launched Jiaozhen, a fact-checking website largely dedicated to debunking false health information. This sub-genre has found a susceptible audience in a society obsessed with longevity.

Toutiao, one of China’s biggest news apps, says it now uses machine-learning software to spot “dubious pieces” after it was criticised for posting sensational information. It then has teams of human employees double-check random samplings of the flagged content to train the machine-learning algorithm.

The Chinese government has attempted to clamp down on the proliferation of false information. Regulations were passed in 2015 making spreading rumours and false news online punishable by up to seven years in prison. However, the law has largely been used to contain sensitive news about natural disasters and government scandals.

China was ranked 176th out of 180 countries in the 2017 index on world press freedom released by Reporters Without Borders last week.

Emily Feng

Financial Times

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