Official Chinese Media: Staying Silent in the Face of Rumours and Lies is “Condoning” Them

Count Huang Cuxin, the director of the Journalism and Communication Institute of the Chinese Social Sciences Academy, as an increasing number of people obviously dissatisfied with the spread of false information via social media in China. In a recent interview with the China Youth Daily, Huang in particular took a deeper look at this issue. The results may surprise you.

More Fabrications on Weibo Less Contagious than those on Weibo

Never mind that “merely” 7% of false information start off life on WeChat: they are more contagious on that service than on Weibo. This is due to several reasons:

  • Weibo, being a public platform, will probably see specialists made aware of the factual inaccuracy, then come out and denounce it early on.
  • Anonymity and “responsibility” (in what you say) is less felt with Weibo than on WeChat.
  • In general, you don’t add people on WeChat unless you at least know them; hence you are more familiar with those on that service.
  • As a result, because most people know one other on WeChat (even if just a bit), there tends to be more trust between friends — which is why, amongst friends, the message tends to get spread out faster.

Fake News Works Because It Has Audiences

The interview mentions four key areas why fake info gets sent out in the first place:

  • Large audience — do remember China is the largest nation by headcount, online or offline; furthermore, 83% of Web users (just around 50% of 1.3+ billion) are online using mobile devices (which makes it easier and quicker to get content online than pulling out, say, a laptop).
  • Monetary “incentives” — there is a large impetus to in essence exchange content for money.
  • The elderly are online as well — and they do care about food safety, amongst other issues. In fact, some seniors go out to trust WeChat on a level equitable to official media in China.
  • Political reasons — here, the finger is pointed at organisations outside of China colluding with those inside China to send politically sensitive content, including those that provide “the wrong view of history”, amongst many other issues.

Some of these lies are merely “recycled” ones — their form is little different but they change critically sensitive content, such as the telephone number for bogus kidnappings, or where a kid was last seen.

Huang points out that merely taking no action when seeing fake content is little different than condoning it. He advises people to be more aware and to improve their media literacy (including making the education system teaching youngsters how to spot fake content). But he also advises government to be more active and to not hesitate in posting accurate information to dispel rumours. Rumours are indeed troublesome as a coherent explanation requires far more time than that needed to merely post a message. Finally, better law enforcement is required to quash fake content.

The entire interview can be read here on Xinhua, and is in simplified Chinese.

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