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How Chinese Fake News Defends Itself
College Daily's Response to the New Yorker Takedown
I’m Jordan Schneider, Beijing-based host of the ChinaEconTalk Podcast. In this newsletter, I translate articles from Chinese media about tech, business, and political economy. If you were forwarded this email, for weekly updates feel free to…
Thanks to everyone who took the time to meet with me last week in DC and those who came out to our live recording.
Last month, Han Zhang profiled College Daily (北美留学生日报) in the New Yorker. College Daily, a popular WeChat account with 1.5 million subscribers, started out as a practical resource for Chinese students studying in the US. However, it has since developed into a sort of Daily Caller for Chinese exchange students. As Han writes, it now provides “Chinese news delivered with nationalistic overtones; tabloid tales of Chinese students living overseas (sex, drugs, murders, and missing women appear frequently); and news from the U.S. and the celebrity world."
A few excerpts from the New Yorker article give you a gist of what the platform is like:
“We need to combine facts and feelings,” Guan [College Daily’s lead editor in NY] told the group, citing the post as an exemplar. “In our posts, there should be things from reality, but also things from one’s mind. Otherwise, the emotional appeal will be lacking.”
A headline posted during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign read “Using a Double? Changing Leaders? Might Not Have Long to Live? Hillary’s Campaign May End Early.” More recently, a headline proclaimed, “Trump Dodged a Bullet! ‘Russian Collusion’ Investigation Over, and He’s Safe. . . .”
“Yup, there is air pollution in China,” the College Daily riposte to Yang’s speech said. “But is air in America really so good? Are you compelled to take a deep breath of the piss-infused air in New York City every day?”
I asked Deng [College Daily’s most viral staff writer] why he thought the piece [which fabricated a story about having a Syrian refugee friend] had resonated with such a large audience. “It’s purely made up, to be honest with you,” Deng replied. “It’s all made up. I’m not sure if I did the right thing. My boss asked me to write it. I think, if a new-media outlet wants to move people, you have to make them feel that it’s real.” He rattled off the official government outlets that reposted the piece: People’s Daily; Global Times, the tabloid affiliate of People’s Daily; the state-run news agency Xinhua; the Chinese Communist Youth League. “I got them all!” he said, with a laugh.
“No matter what you write, there are people who are going to curse at you,” Deng said. “You are nonetheless making money off them. It’s like charging them an intelligence tax.”
The New Yorker piece was translated into Chinese and instantly went viral. College Daily published a response, which we have translated in full below. Their rebuttal is a fascinating, odd and deeply depressing example of a leading Chinese new media outlet that chases viral hits. Nationalism, whataboutism, a victim complex, misunderstandings of American media born of ignorance and malice, and a ‘new media’ style combine for a head-spinning rebuttal.
Yet this perspective is one that resonates both in China as well as among Chinese studying abroad, perhaps born out of the parallel media landscape that many Chinese students and expats in America inhabit. Those seeking to understand the dynamics around Chinese nationals in the US would be wise to spend some time engaging with the ideology baked into College Daily.
Before we jump into the College Daily piece, see below for an excerpt from some commentary on the issue by Liang Wendao of ‘Vistopia.’
In today's era, when mass movements of population is more common than ever, people generally move with their home media outlets.
We can now observe, for example, a group of overseas Chinese immigrants or Chinese students. On the surface, they seem to have fully integrated into the local life, but in fact, in their spiritual life, and the way they acquire information has not disconnected from the motherland, or they are inevitably linked to messages sent from the motherland …
Therefore, we can understand where Chinese students overseas are today, where are they different from the past –
In the past, Chinese immigrants or international students, if they wanted to hear news about China, would read stuff like the China Daily. However, if they wanted to learn about American elections and US politics, they would mostly have to rely on American media. But now the situation is completely different. A person who works and lives overseas can may still obtain various overseas related information through the media in his home country.
This is a brand new society.
Under such a society, the nation-state, national identity and patriotism in the traditional sense no longer apply.
In the past, this kind of consciousness was often formed because we live in the same environment. We share the same complete life experience, news environment and values with most people in society. When a person immigrates overseas, the environment changes as well and he/she may slowly change his identity.
However, today's situation has become extraordinarily complicated. Even if a person's life and working environment are overseas, and even the lifestyle is completely different, his/her social circle and [given that most news is read through recommendations] information sources may remain in the original country
This is the reality we face in the globalization that has shattered today.
It can be said that College Daily is a product of the basic framework I have described.
Interestingly, a media public number originally targeted at the international student community, most of the user groups today may still be people within our territory. In this sense, it presents a double-sided meaning.
For international students and overseas Chinese, it seems to represent a connection with the homeland, conveying the voice and news of China; but for followers within China, it seems to convey a perspective of overseas Chinese.
From whichever side you’re coming from, the outlet has some kind of ‘authority’ (权威性). However, such ‘authoritative’ media is contaminated by information pollution, what should we do?
How does the West distort reporting on China? You’ll find the answer in The New Yorker’s reporting on College Daily
From the editorial section at College Daily. August 21st.
The following article was translated by Erik Stahle. Please reach out if you’re interested in contributing to translations—I have a small budget for this sort of thing!
We recommend our readers look at the original New Yorker piece in English to get a full understanding. After the piece was translated to Chinese, it was sent widely around internet messaging groups.
However, regardless of whether it is the English edition or Chinese edition, much of the content does not match the reality of what interviewees said. This article has also been posted and reposted on the internet with malicious intent by many people, misrepresenting the truth, misquoting parts.
After reading this article, we experienced the ‘magic technology’ that Western media uses to misquote reality, calling the white sheep black, so to speak. For example, despite the article only recently having been sent out, the interviews were done almost 6 months ago. After finishing interviews in February of 2019, the author of the New Yorker article stood by silently without posting anything.
Due to recent reporting on the violent protests in Hong Kong, many Chinese students living abroad have been marching on the streets in anger. Our newspaper posted several articles in support of these patriotic students. Within 3 hours of our post about the Hong Kong, the New Yorker journalist, Han, sent a message to the people she had interviewed 6 months earlier, telling them she was about to send out the article.
In between February 19th, and August 10th, this New Yorker piece was “lost” in editing for 6 months… From nothing for 6 months, to immediately sending it. This type of action does not easily fool Chinese people.
Now, this takes us back to the beginning of the story.
In February of this year, a woman calling herself a New Yorker editor added our editor in Chief on WeChat. She messaged him saying, “It looks like College Daily is doing really well, I would love to visit and hear about your success story, in addition to interviewing your wonderful editors. I want to better understand your thoughts, and how you write articles that students abroad love reading so much.”
Despite our deep mistrust of Western media, we have found The New Yorker’s articles to be interesting, unlike CNN’s ‘drama show’, so we responded and received her at our New York office. Furthermore, we allowed her to interview all of our editors and reporters, going through everything about our publication that she wanted to know. Unfortunately, she was not able to reciprocate our sincerity.
As reality has it, her interviews were with a specific goal in mind. You could even say it was a trap.
“Is this story real? Does it have any fabricated elements?”
“When you were writing this article, did you make sure that the people in it actually exist?”
“This article is so strange, surely it can’t be real?!”
“How could this case end up like this, it couldn’t be fake.”
“No, an article this long has to have some elements that are ‘artistically worked’.”
“Stop joking, how could you possibly remember all of these details, there must be some uncertain parts.”
And so on and so forth, chattering on with this type of questions.
To give you a better picture of what really happened, let Hehe, one of our editors interviewed by The New Yorker, tell you more about how the interview went.
The following content is all recounted by Hehe:
The reporter had originally wanted to interview some of the people in charge of the publication, but after seeing my face on the wall, invited me to an interview.
She began by asking some basic personal questions, and then, while chuckling, asked why my photo was posted on our wall. I shrugged and said, it could be because I’m rather lucky. I wrote some articles that blew up, and Chinese youths like to tape images of lucky people on walls, to help create a cheery atmosphere. It’s just like everyone having Yang Chaoyue (Chinese Idol) as their screensaver on their phone.
She then asked me what the secret to writing such explosive articles was.
I told her that writing articles isn’t a formula, and that there’s not any one way to do it to guarantee a good result. This industry isn’t something with a magic code or laws, the interests of readers always change, and there is no real way to get to know all of them.
For example, I expend a lot of energy to write some articles that may get no response, while on the other hand, some articles I don’t feel very good about will blow up. On my third day of work, I wrote an article with 300,000 views, on my fifth day I wrote an article with 500,000 views, my second week, I had one with 1,000,000 views. However, at the time I had no idea what would make an article so popular; I didn’t even know the rules of new media, so I must have been very lucky. When I later tried to replicate the thinking of my previous articles, I found out the response was not quite as good, and for the next month I couldn’t write anything explosive. Therefore, I believe that there is no secret, an explosive article is something you have to happen across rather than chase. If I had to claim any secret, I would say you need to be sincere, you need to use real emotions. In order to move others, you first need to move yourself.
Later, she was curious about my explosive articles, so I introduced them to her.
I said, with regards to our WeChat account, the most important thing is to find hot current events both inside and outside of China for study abroad students. My first story was an article about students studying abroad in China, the second was about Croatia in the World Cup finals, my third was criticizing websites in China, the fourth was about foreign brands criticizing China, and the fifth was about the fires in California, etc…
For every article I described them in great detail, my train of thought, the preparation process, and the reasons why I believed they received such welcome. I even explained the large amount of time I would use consulting relevant documents, double checking the truth of the news, and using references. This would take up 90% of the interview process.
Explaining this painstaking process of writing these articles was a little selfish, as I wanted to show the Americans that Chinese media people will work just as hard and responsibly as they do. However, the disappointing thing is that this content did not make it into the New Yorker article.
She then asked me if I decided the topics for these articles myself. I told her some are, some aren’t. Many of the articles come from the editorial team or the editor in chief, as he has a lot of experience in the industry. Not only will he give me topics to write about, but sometimes he would also help me to better understand the thought process or give me advice on the articles. Then, after I finished writing the articles, he would help me edit them.
After this, the reporter said to me, ‘every once in a while, College Daily will put out some atypical opinions. Do you receive any criticism then?’ I told her that our articles will sometimes be criticized behind the scenes, but I won’t get upset because of it. This is a very common occurrence, and many media companies will come across similar situations. Sometimes it is even a good thing to receive criticism on one’s work, because it shows that people are following you; in fact, many of our followers started out as critical of our work, but after learning more about us, they became fans of our work.
However, in the New Yorker article, they only wrote, “Be that as it may, you still can earn money, so it is just like them collecting an intelligence tax.”
Everyone goes through a process of acceptance, even many correct opinions need a period of time before they are accepted as such. After this, our interview ended.
…Until yesterday, when I saw the New Yorker article. To be honest, I was rather disappointed by it. This time, what I read was not something that came from a highly respected media publication, it was just another Western media company misrepresenting the truth in order to besmirch China.
Nothing I told the New Yorker reporter about the new media industry during my interview, including my knowledge, experience, and stories, made it into the article. Rather, she only reported made up lies, and falsely labeled Chinese media as ‘fake news’. On the topic of fake news, we are just the little brother [not respected enough].
In the year I’ve been at College Daily, every article I wrote had to go through a vigorous process of checking, and the most important thing for the publication is the truth. My first day at work was even a training on how to properly verify a reference. While I was working, every one of my articles went through a strict reference checking process. One of my articles had 24 references, and the Editor-in-Chief thoroughly checked every one of them. When he found out that I didn’t correspond with one of them, he sternly criticized me for not doing so.
This time, I want to condemn evil Western media for their actions. I also ask that my many compatriots do not believe the slanderous words about Chinese media in this article. One day, the sun will rise, and the light of truth will shine. On that day, we will know which country’s media is the real fake news.
--This content is from our interview with HeHe
In reality, whether it was interviewing over the phone or in person, we saw that this “Chinese Editor” was quite unprofessional. She asked the same questions many times, and often repeated similar questions. Also, as soon as she got into our office, she started asking questions about our relationship to the Chinese Government, if we take directives from them or not etc…
She also asked what happened if the Chinese Government put out negative news, whether or not we would have a choice to report it… We later realized that it seemed this editor had come with a mission.
As friend of this so-called editor told us, she used to work at 21st Economy (another Chinese language news site). In 2016, after the President of the newspaper, Liu Jiandong, committed suicide by jumping off of a building, she left the country and went to the U.S., and quickly got a Green Card.
Obviously, we aren’t the immigration officials, and have no way of verifying this or understanding how quickly she got the Green Card, but we wanted to know the truth, and provide more evidence for our readers.
We tried to get in touch with the editor, but she was currently in a state of ‘losing contact’, and we weren’t able to reach her.
However, her New Yorker article comes straight from the textbook of Western media misrepresenting and misquoting the truth, a time-tested tactic.
“His home is by the border of North Korea.”
Western media will often use these so called ‘truths’, to assemble information. These types of metaphors are quite common. For example, this section describes that our Editor in Chief is from Dalian in Liaoning province, then immediately writes “Liaoning borders North Korea.” What is that supposed to imply?
For example, if I introduce a friend from Saudi Arabia to you, and then say, “He and Bin Laden are from the same town…” How will you think of him? Everything I said was factual, but aren’t you already suspicious that he has something to do with terrorism?
These types of metaphors are often used by CNN to embarrass China, for example something like a report titled, “Used as a natural Viagra in Chinese medicine, seahorse numbers are declining”. Oh of course, the worldwide destruction of the species is entirely the fault of the actions on Chinese people.
Forced definitions: What is right-wing conspiracy theorist media?
The New Yorker’s reporting has one issue, and it’s a problem that Western media often has: forcing definitions and placing unfair labels. One example is them saying that we use right wing conspiracy theorists as our sources. First, after ISIS was exterminated, how else can the White Helmets report the fighting in Syria is basically over. Everyone should most likely know what this means.
Russia Today is the news that the Russian side supports of course, but there are things that CNN and Fox may not report on. In this case, is it not better to think about using other country’s media to hear different opinions? Oh, of course, as long as you have a different point of view, you’re a right-wing conspiracy theorist? According to who’s standards? Who defines this? It’s just like the following logic: if you support Hong Kong police, then you an account that is “spreading fake news,” and should be censored.
Western media will often force these definitions upon us.
The Chinese students in Canada that have been protesting violence in Hong Kong for the past few days are all of a sudden reported like this… “Chinese nationalists crash Hong Kong rally in Toronto with luxury cars”
Huh? Chinese students protesting on the street all of a sudden become nationalists? This is an unfair label. Really awesome…
Forcibly embedding one’s opinions, mixing interviewees thoughts with your own
There is a section that goes like this in the New Yorker reporting:
Who defines “new media”? Did this young New Yorker reporter just define China’s millions of new media platforms as ‘making things happen, creating a trend, making things go viral, and conjuring a story that readers think is real? Is putting this subjective of an opinion in a so called ‘objectively reported’ article really acceptable?
Do you remember when Liu Xin debated the American news anchor? While reporting the debate, U.S. media would not stop referring to CGTN as China’s state-run media. The purpose of this reporting was clear from the beginning, of course.
And what the hell is this headline from the Chinese version of the article? “The New Yorker reveals how College Daily collects an ‘intelligence tax’”
Here is another look at the English language headline: The “Post-Truth” Publication Where Chinese Students in America get Their News.
In contrast, the Chinese headline seems a bit like clickbait, right?
Quotes taken out of context: College Daily is collecting an intelligence tax
The New Yorker quoted us out of context several times in the course of their reporting. They took material from different time periods and contexts, and just threw it together.
Just look at this sentence, “It’s like charging them an intelligence tax.” Hehe told this to the reporter when they were talking about the new media industry as a whole. In fact, he was actually denouncing the many self-media publications that are collecting an intelligence tax. The reporter obviously edited his critique of the industry, turning it into the ‘business model’ for College Daily.
Western media interviewing Chinese students abroad: a trap at every turn
Ok now, forget about the purposefully misquoted article from the New Yorker for a bit. I wanted to talk about other recent events. Recently, many Chinese students have been taking to the streets against the violence in Hong Kong, singing Chinese national songs to protest the violence and the separationist attitude. Many Western media reporters have been attending the protests in order to interview the students. However, their questions are quite cunning, hiding their evil intentions.
1. Did you family spend a lot of money to send you here for your studies?
If you say yes, they may write about you like this, “These students come from China’s mega rich, and obviously couldn’t understand the problems of regular people in China.”
2. Do you think people have the freedom to march and protest?
If you say yes, they might write about you like this, “Chinese students believe Hong Kong protest marches are justified.”
3. Have you ever been beaten by protesters?
If you say no, they will probably say, “Chinese students believe that the Hong Kong protests aren’t violent.”
After reading The New Yorker’s reporting, I learned the methods of Western media
While the 2012 series, ‘The Newsroom’, was at its peak popularity, the American news media was in a rather irritable environment. Just like Chinese media outlets today, they were chasing headlines, finding entertaining and gossip news that appeals to everyone, rather than reporting on things like miner deaths. No one was willing to report the truth if it meant hurting the public.
This series made anyone with a brain’s blood boil. While in the process of making the news, many people saw streams of light coming through the darkness, and justice potentially coming to the forefront. However, this series forced many Western media personalities to admit that their failures in reporting. ‘The Newsroom’ was not about the news itself, but rather, about the process of creating news.
Along these same lines, ‘The Newsroom’ brought out a sad truth, that, in reality, all news is made behind the scenes, in the back rooms. The “outside story” is just used to fill space and is collected as cheaply and quickly as possible. This series was expressing the state of American traditional media at the time, but has it changed by today?
With regards to ‘lies’ and ‘truth’, ‘trickery’ and ‘trust’, which one will make people believe?
If Western media reports it, is it all the truth?
How objective is Western media really? The American ‘freedom of speech’ popular social media sites Twitter and Facebook have recently shut down almost 1,000 Chinese accounts related to the problems in Hong Kong.
(A Twitter run account called ‘Twitter Safety’ reported on August 19th that they had already shut down 936 Chinese mainland-based twitter accounts.)
However, Twitter gave the most preposterous reason for shutting the accounts down: these accounts are coming from the government, which were spreading news about Hong Kong through coordinated activity. In addition, the information being spread was apparently against the ‘legality’ of the Hong Kong protests, ‘sowing seeds of disinformation in the Hong Kong government,’ and ‘disrupting the government order of Hong Kong.’
(The BBC, the New York Times, and many others were reporting about this Chinese government-sponsored fake news)
But what was all of this so-called ‘fake news’ being taken down? Twitter answered this question by sending out a few examples:
These types of posts, which supported the Chinese government’s official stance on the Hong Kong protests, sent by proud Chinese nationals, were immediately judged to be planting seeds of discord, and wiped from Twitter. CNN, BBC, the AP, AFP, Reuters all posted articles without a second thought, claiming that this was “the Chinese government trying to control the public discourse.”
Just like in ‘The Newsroom’, everyone was chasing headlines, quick to denounce the Chinese government for what they ‘did’ surrounding the so-called Hong Kong misinformation. We all thought American reporters were like those in ‘The Newsroom’. However, in reality, time and time again, they are just looking for those big news stories. After looking at some pictures, it’s pretty easy to realize that this ‘independent, objective media,’ is very much the opposite.
As U.S. media was reporting on the Trump administration catching and imprisoning illegal immigrant, including children, and throwing them in cages, the pictures weren’t true. These pictures were completely doctored and just came from children surrounded by a fence at a protest. This type of critical reporting by popular U.S. media outlets is nothing new at all. Much of Western media wants you to believe that they are independent, objective and reporting for the good of the everyone in the world, but in reality, they all have their own perspectives. They will only report the news if it is something they believe they want to hear. If it doesn’t match their values or beliefs, they won’t report it. Just like the New Yorker article that kept misrepresenting the truth; reporters harboring evil intentions. They started with “You are doing very well, I would love to report on your success,” to ending with “this media publication is bad for all.”
College Daily reflects the disillusionment with America for Chinese students? Exactly!
The New Yorker reporting wasn’t completely misquoting things. There are some places that correctly reported what we wanted to express. For example this quote “The articles College Daily reports reflect its readership’s disillusionment with America.” This is the truth! This is also something that many Chinese students studying in the U.S. have wanted to say. Before, I yearned to come to the states, so I spent a lot of money to come here. However, little by little, I became disillusioned with the US, and the Western world as a whole.
When a gun sounds, and 10 people are murdered, with nobody apologizing or taking responsibility, this disillusioned me
When the whole country gets up in arms about him, but in the end elects a ‘twitter ruler’, throwing the country’s collective minds aside, this disillusioned me
When you come across discrimination on campus, but when you want to protest this, you get ignored, this disillusioned me
When the West encourages the bad conduct of rioters, but shuts down your media account for speaking the truth, this disillusioned me
When Western media discusses any topic in the world as they wish, but cannot speak directly about China, this disillusioned me
When I saw an unprofessional and immature reporter use The New Yorker’s platform to misrepresent the truth in reporting, this thoroughly disillusioned me.
We can with an open mind accept the interviews by The New Yorker, but it became such a negative article that made us unsure of whether to laugh or cry. It is just like China today, which is openly and warmly welcoming people of every country but is met with evil-intentioned blackmail and bullying.
“The wise man did not commit a crime, but his talent arouses the envy of others.”
Perhaps my pain is shared by a few others in this.
In fact, many readers are smart, as soon as reading The New Yorker article, they say the problems in it, commenting on the WeChat version of the article.
“I see a trend in this article, which is Western media following Chinese media in Western countries more and more. In the past, there was a much smaller amount paying attention, and Chinese media could post whatever they want. However, given the current rise in attention being paid, Chinese media in western countries should be afraid and restrain themselves more.”
“This self translated New Yorker article was filled with bias and prejudice.”
This last comment said it quite accurately, filled with bias and prejudice.
Just like when Liu Xin debated the American news anchor, they said CGTN is state-run media.
Just like when College Daily fervently supports Chinese students abroad backing Hong Kong police, and The New Yorker gives us a cooked up story with false labels. As if Chinese students need to be whipped up into a fake news frenzy to love their country.
First let The New Yorker reporter define the goal of “I want to find evidence of media that cooks up fake news,” and searches high and low for evidence. Misquoting and and misrepresenting the truth, I charge you with it.
If you want to condemn someone, you won’t worry about the pretext.
Does this world have any media that hasn’t had problems?
“The prejudice of the human heart is a large mountain.”
No matter how hard you try to move it, it can’t be moved.
A few hours ago, our Editor in Chief was on CGTN as a guest on Liu Xin’s program. When I brought up the biases Western media have against Chinese media, we all laughed. China needs more of its high quality media publications to go internationally and broadcast its own thoughts! This is our only mission.
Thanks for making it this far!