(This is an Op-ed I recently wrote for Sixth Tone.)
In February, Wikipedia editors voted to ban the British tabloid the Daily Mail and its website as sources of reference in its entries. The decision was based on the news group’s “poor fact checking, sensationalism, and flat-out fabrication,” which rendered its content “generally unreliable.”
While internet users in the Western world now stand a reduced chance of encountering the Daily Mail’s content, Chinese social media outlets — including microblogging site Weibo and social messaging app WeChat — are frequently abuzz with the tabloid’s stories. In fact, the social media feeds of millions of Chinese netizens are filled not only with translations of the Daily Mail’s stories, but also with a torrent of misinformation from the West’s now-ubiquitous fake news and conspiracy theory websites.
Last month, an article titled “Flock of Drug-Addicted Parrots Fight With Poppy Farmers” was upvoted more than 100,000 times on WeChat. The piece was a translation of another article that had appeared in the Daily Mail, which had republished a story put out by the Daily Mirror, a rival British tabloid. While the piece focused on a very real problem faced by Indian poppy farmers — that parrots routinely plunder their crops for food — its portrayal of an avian addiction epidemic was highly overblown and sensationalized.
“Man Who Leaked Hilary [Clinton]’s Emails Assassinated: Are They Killing People to Hide Information, or Is There Something Else Going On?” blared the headline of another translated article on Sohu, a Chinese search engine and news aggregator, after the fatal shooting of Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich in July last year. The piece, which suggested that Clinton could have been silencing those suspected of leaking emails, raised questions similar to those that appeared on right-wing conspiracy websites in the United States and elsewhere.
Further Chinese-language articles included the sensational claims that former President Barack Obama would refuse to leave the White House if Donald Trump won the election — an article originally publishedlast September by a satirical news site — and that WikiLeaks documents showed Clinton was selling weaponry to the Islamic State — a piece that was published in October by the widely discredited right-wing site Political Insider.
These articles — read by millions of Chinese Internet users — are only the tip of an increasingly disconcerting iceberg.
To be sure, the Daily Mail and American right-wing conspiracy websites are not operating Chinese-language outlets in China, though the Daily Mail does have an established partnership with Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. The real force behind the massive importing from the Daily Mail and other such outlets stories is an influential — some might say notorious — group of social media accounts known as yingxiao hao, or “marketing accounts.”
These accounts are mostly run by start-up companies with a low number of staff. Due to constraints on time and labor power, they seldom produce original content or check their facts. Instead, they adopt a cost-efficient approach toward content production. Nearly every article they publish is translated and revised based on eye-catching stories in the Western media — usually tabloids, clickbait websites, and fake news sites. They don’t have permission to reproduce copyrighted content, but this doesn’t stop them from doing so on a vast scale, since it’s very difficult for Western media to track copyright infringement in another language.
Successful marketing accounts accumulate multitudes of followers from the content they share. As they do so, they start to advertise. Some of them even succeed in securing venture capital. “College Daily,” the account that published the aforementioned fake news articles about the 2016 American presidential election secured early-stage financing of 10 million yuan ($1.45 million) in February 2016. The business model of these accounts is thus straightforward: Lure in readers via clickbait and fake news, then sell users’ attention to advertisers.
For marketing accounts, traffic is everything, and quality and truth are nothing. That’s why they overwhelmingly choose to import sensational, controversial, or conspiratorial content from the likes of the Daily Mail and Political Insider, rather than from more serious and reputable sources. Even when they do import stories from, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post, they put a tabloid-esque spin on them, distorting their information. For instance, when Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The New York Times, wrote a letter to readers after last year’s election saying that the paper had covered it “with agility and creativity,” marketing accounts recast it as a letter of apology in which the publisher “acknowledged that the Times didn’t fulfil its responsibility as an influential media outlet” and instead “became a cheerleader for Hillary Clinton.” Although the story was flat-out distortion, it went viral on Chinese social media, and most certainly increased the account’s value.
The commercial success of marketing accounts is facilitated by myriad factors, including other social media platforms also eager to increase traffic. The language barrier and the difficulty in accessing foreign news websites also help marketing accounts, whose readers are less likely to verify the information they read. Although some people in China are introducing fact-checking labels to fight the plague of fake news, their accounts carry much less influence than marketing accounts.
Ironically, although the Chinese government has issued a law saying that publishing false rumors that are then reposted at least 500 times can result in three years’ imprisonment, these fake news articles and conspiracy theories are mostly uncensored, the perpetrators who run them safe and rich.
When Daily Mail staff rack their brains to create clickbait, when Macedonian teenagers produce fake news about American politics and earn tens of thousands of dollars in the process, they probably don’t realize that their content is also flooding the social media platforms of the world’s most populous country, appropriated by Chinese social media accounts. The global flow of misinformation shows how clickbait and fake news goes viral in similar ways all over the world, yet it also reveals the unique characteristics of China’s digital media environment.
To combat China’s vast clickbait and fake news imports, domestic social media giants must follow their Western counterparts — including Google and Facebook — in developing algorithms and policies that suppress the diffusion of poorly sourced, overly sensational, or downright fabricated news content. Investors, too, must be encouraged to adopt a more socially responsible approach: one which not only seeks financial gain, but also brings about positive social change; one which improves our information environment instead of polluting it. But ultimately, it is internet users themselves who decide the fate of clickbait and fake news websites. If we equip everyone with stronger media literacy — namely, the skills of accessing, analyzing, and evaluating media content — China’s fake news articles won’t be worth the flimsy paper they’re printed on.