A surprisingly simple guide to filtering rumors from reality
Every day, lurid tales circulate WeChat, and the more sordid the story, the more likely we are to “Share” it with shaking hands. In the world of rumors, the economy is constantly on the brink of collapse; vegetables eaten at the wrong time of day will cause agonizing death; gangs roam the country, kidnapping children from shopping malls; and every pop star is actually in the closet.
In 2016, the Lab for Big Data and Communication at Sun Yat-sen University, in cooperation with WeChat’s security team, analyzed over 2,000 “fake news” articles that were widely shared on WeChat that year. The study showed that 31.4 percent of these articles were inaccurate or made-up news reports; 15.1 percent were about health, including food safety and disease prevention; and celebrity gossip made up 13.5 percent.
In the information economy, recognizing a lie has become a survival skill (a lucky few may be able to teach their acquaintances not to share rumors in the first place, but we can’t promise miracles). The first to any myth-busting proficiency is the same as in the West—look at the headline. Dodgy sources often boast headlines with capitalized words and multiple exclamation points; the phrase “breaking news” is common. Terms like “shocking” or “urgent alert” are thrown around with abandon. The first rule of thumb is, the harder an article is trying to provoke an extreme reaction, the more likely it is to be dubious.
[Shocking!] Eating the following will lead to certain death!!!
[Zhènjīng!] Chī xià zhège bìsǐ wú yí!
[Urgent alert!] Poisoned seafood is pouring into the market!
[Jǐnjí tōngzhī!] Yǒudú hǎixiān liúrù shìchǎng!
The breaking-news angle is a great way to stir up fear, particularly when coupled with an absurdly threatening tale.
Escaped serial murderer has come to town!!! Stay safe!!!
Zàitáo liánhuán shārénfàn zài běnchéng chūmò!!! Zhùyì ānquán!!!
Emergency alert: Hundreds of human traffickers have entered city, grabbing kids in the streets!!!
Jǐnjí tōngzhī: Jǐ bǎi gè rénfànzi jìnrù běnchéng, zhuānmén dāngjiē qiǎng xiǎoháir!!!
How is it that the police can’t catch these fugitives, yet someone on WeChat knows exactly when and where they’ll show up? The rumormongers never address this question, and click-bait titles like these are often anathema to actual law enforcement. In fact, they offer one reason behind the censorship of some crime-related media and the “clean internet” anti-rumor campaigns, though popular Weibo bloggers and genuine reports about social unrest tend to get inexplicably caught in the crossfire too.
Still, the rumor mill can turn even censorship to its advantage:
Read it now before it’s deleted! A new epidemic has killed dozens but the government is still hiding information!
Shān qián sù kàn! Xīnxíng chuánrǎnbìng yǐ zhì shù shí rén sǐwáng, zhèngfǔ réng yǐnmán xiāoxi!
The words 删前速看 (shān qián sù kàn), literally “read quickly before deletion,” are a cunning ploy: Everyone in China knows that the censors delete news, and information about epidemics has been hushed up before. Claiming that an article is already doomed makes readers believe it holds important truths, and of course, they’ll want to open it before its time runs out.
If you do ever see these words, check what news outlet first published the piece and when; then ask yourself why it hasn’t been pulled yet, as predicted.
As the above example shows, health is always a source of public concern. Food safety is a favorite topic of rumormongers, because it can be hard to tell a lie from just another food-industry horror.
Food rumors can be divided into three types. The first type stigmatizes a particular item:
Stop eating meat floss! It’s all made of dyed cotton!
Búyào zài chī ròusōng le! Nà dōu shì rǎnsè miánhuā zuò de!
Excess levels of heavy metal found in crayfish, that’s why foreigners never eat them!
Xiǎolóngxiā zhòngjīnshǔ chāobiāo, suǒyǐ wàiguórén cónglái bù chī!
Putting aside why foreigners are always the ultimate arbiter of acceptability, these reports will often go on to quote some dubious experts, usually followed by the initials of some plausible but non-existent organizations, to support the discovery of a new “scandal,” taking attention away from credible scandals deserving of media attention.
The second type of food-safety rumor deals with the supposed negative health effects of particular food items, usually “cancer” or “death.”
Heavens! This common dish actually causes cancer!
Tiān a! Zuì cháng chī de cài jìngrán zhì ái!
Eating tomatoes with milk could kill you!
Niúnǎi hé xīhóngshì yìqǐ chī kěnéng zhì sǐ!
Mix any two ingredients together, or pick any food found in an ordinary kitchen, and there’s an expert predicting lethal consequences. But sometimes these generic “Dr. Lius” and non-existent “Harvard Liver Research Institutes” will rally around certain foods for their positive effects, such as a common garden vegetable-turned-panacea, usually capable of treating, yes, cancer:
Eat this every day, keep cancer away!
Měitiān chī tā, yuǎnlí áizhèng!
Health organizations aside, state apparatuses are favorite sources for rumormongers to cite to make their rumors sound more reliable, especially for misleading pieces about the economy or social policies.
CCTV reports house prices will fall to 2007 levels before year’s end.
Yāngshì bàodào chēng niánnèi fángjià huì xiàjiàng zhì èr líng líng qī nián shuǐpíng.
Defense Department urges everyone to stop using iPhones, because the US has bugged them.
Měiguó zài píngguǒ shǒujī shàng ānzhuāng le qiètīngqì, guófángbù hūyù dàjiā tíngyòng.
Celebrities or overseas leaders also have authority, and unlike the government, fabricated quotes from these sources can be as shocking, irritating, and inflammatory as the writer wishes. Patriotic issues lend themselves easily to click-bait missives, and Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, and Shinzo Abe are the preferred vehicles for delivering them:
Putin’s speech alarms 1.3 billion Chinese people!
Pǔjīng de yīfānhuà zhènjīng le shí sān yì zhōngguórén!
The whole nation is furious! Here’s what Obama said!
Quánguó rénmín dōu nù le, Àobāmǎ jūrán zhème shuō!
These types of rumors used to be easier to spot—given the delicacy required in international relations, it was difficult to imagine any world leader casually insulting 1.3 billion people. But this commonsense rule may no longer apply in the era of US President Trump. After all, a typical Trump speech contains more clickbait fodder, fake news, or fire and fury than even the internet can keep up with.
“How To Spot Fake News” is a story from our issue, “Modern Hermit”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.