Trump is from Chongqing, and other fake Chinese news

By Juli Min Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/12 18:18:40


Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

"Did you know Trump wasn't even born in America? He was born in Chongqing!" I did a double take, but she wasn't joking. As my extended family ooh'd and ahh'd over this gossip, I realized that most of them had no idea that the "news" was just an urban legend.

They were unaware that, in order to qualify for the position, all American presidential candidates must be physically born on US soil. There was no way Trump - whose birthplace is Queens, New York, 1946 - is from southwestern China.

"Where did you hear this?" I asked. "WeChat," she said. Of course WeChat: China's black hole of rampant rumors, faulty information, sensational news and unyielding chatter. Everyday, it seems, there is some new rumor about some celebrity or scandal that is later proved patently false.

A week ago Trump was born in Chongqing. The next day Jack Ma was paying child support to a village boy because they looked identical. Since coming to China, never have I been inundated with more hearsay; never have I been more skeptical of what I hear.

To be fair, WeChat does have a feature that allows users to report false or misleading information, though I doubt if a few clicks of a button hold any weight over the power and speed of China's national rumor mill.

But at least Tencent has a mechanism in place to deal with the problem, which is more than American companies like Facebook or Twitter offer.

Recently a member of Trump's official transition team maliciously spread false information on Twitter that Clinton's campaign was involved in a child sex ring based out of, of all places, a pizza parlor.

One man, triggered by this news, took his rifle and shot up the restaurant. There can be serious consequences to spreading misinformation.

The question of what to do about the profusion of user-generated untruth has become more and more pressing the world over as social networks and apps provide greater avenues for, and accessibility to, unofficial opinions.

What's ironic about China's particular gold mine of misinformation, though, is that it takes place in a country that makes no pretense about heavily monitoring the flow of online information.

Shouldn't, then, there be a reliable source where the Chinese public can turn to to separate fact from fiction? With resources to spare, perhaps companies like Tencent should create an official channel to do just that: bust viral rumors and set the record straight.

At the very least, news and media in China should be held to a much higher standard, and also must resist the urge to sensationalize just to get clicks and make headlines.

For example, China's official State-empowered news agency, Xinhua, was the one to first release the "news" about Jack Ma's young lookalike; Alibaba was forced to file an official statement after the rumor spread like fire on WeChat and Weibo followed by international media.

It's one thing for user-generated content to go viral; it's another for one of the largest news agencies in the world to get its facts so laughably wrong.

As much as the Chinese love to indulge in sensational misinformation, at times the truth here may be even stranger than fiction.

On one end of the spectrum, you have a chronic flurry of rumor being indulged in, celebrated and enjoyed. On the other end, but on the exact same channel, you have the very real and often traumatic experiences of common citizens being transformed into spectacle.

I wonder, for instance, how many times that gruesome video of the mother being sucked into a faulty escalator in Jingzhou was shared on WeChat. What will her baby (whom she was holding and sacrificed herself to save) feel when he inevitably sees that clip years from now?

Reporting the truth is necessary and vital for civil society, but it's just as important to treat private truths with sensitivity and dignity. As I tried to explain this to my family, they just nodded and smiled kindly, moving on to the next topic of conversation. "Did you hear that ...?"

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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