‘Fake News’ became a defining feature of the US presidential election last year. One particularly bizarre story alleged that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta were running a child pornography ring out of a Washington pizza restaurant.
It had real consequences: on December 4, a 28 year-old man from North Carolina went to “investigate” the claims with a semi-automatic rifle. When he found no evidence of child abuse he shot at the tables and walls. Luckily no one was hurt.
Yet even as the US and other countries are working out how to limit the spread of false, often inflammatory information, marketing companies in China are discovering its value.
Sexy, shocking, titillating stories are being cropped from foreign websites and translated for Chinese websites or social medial channels. The aim is to generate clicks in order 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,” the Financial Times said.
Last year a story about Hillary Clinton supposedly wanting to cap the number of Asian-American students at public universities went viral in China. Another, last month, claimed that American yoghurt maker Chobani only employs Muslims, most of whom have tuberculosis. Both were false.
Ironically China’s strict media and internet controls have contributed to the explosion of imported fake news: many Chinese want to read international news but access to reputable foreign sources such as the New York Times and the BBC are blocked – as is Google.
The phenomenon has given rise to the creation of Chinese online fact-checking websites akin to Snopes.com and Factcheck.org in the US. One weibo account called No Melon Group recently debunked a story saying the Californian government was offering green cards for killing Chinese. The site asks readers to send “rumours and strange theories” directly to them – and uses as its tag line the Edmund Burke quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. But Sixth Tone warns the verification sites “carry much less influence than [fake news] marketing accounts”.
What will be interesting to see is whether China’s new cyberspace laws will have any effect on the spread of these accounts. In theory they should: a new set of regulations, which come into effect on June 1, requires all “providers” of internet news to have a government-issued permit.
Providers are defined as websites, apps, forums, blogs, micro-blogs, public accounts, instant messaging tools and webcasters. The new rules also ban foreign-funded news sites or joint ventures. “Foreign content must be strictly controlled,” the regulator says. “New media is no longer a ‘free kingdom’. ”
It goes on to add that “new media and traditional media will share one standard and unified management”.
“For some time, the internet news has been dominated by ‘entertainment’, ‘vulgarity’, ‘negative thinking’, and ‘money worship’. The regulations stipulate that online news shall adhere to the correct public opinion orientation, play the role of public opinion supervision, promote the formation of a positive and healthy environment.”
China has more than 700 million internet users, 84% of which rely on the web for news, according to Xinhua. The regulations being replaced were created in 2005 before WeChat and Weibo had been invented and when there were only 100 million Chinese online.
Yet there is reason to believe foreign fake news is not the main target of the new laws.
China already has laws which make it illegal to spread rumours online but they are usually applied to contain domestic scuttlebutt. Furthermore, despite the proliferation of fake foreign stories, there has been almost no public outcry.
None of the main government-controlled newspapers have discussed the corrosive effect or advocated for more control on fake sites. One reason might be that most of the articles paint other countries and national leaders in a bad light.
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