How did a spoof article about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un being the sexiest man alive end up as a real news item in China? Turns out it was a case of telephone, or Chinese whispers, in the digital age.
Hong Kong media picked up the piece by US satirical website The Onion a week ago while explaining to readers in Chinese that it was a farce. But from there, it jumped over the Great Firewall and landed into the official, irony-free Chinese media.
When Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV website, ifeng.com, ran its story on its fashion channel on November 21, the story’s second paragraph clearly stated: “The Onion is a satirical news organisation.”
But, when state-run Yangtse.com picked up the Phoenix piece a few hours later, it had morphed into straight news. The piece never mentioned that the original was a joke, instead plucking comical reader comments attached to the Phoenix story and running those.
“A man with so much fat on the face, and the double chin, and the excessively white skin. And they call him the sexiest. They do deserve the name Onion. I can’t help but shed sad tears.”
The editor cited for the story, Yang Fang, could not immediately be reached – and two employees who answered the phone at the Nanjing media outlet said on Wednesday they weren’t even sure if Yang still worked there.
Five days after the Yangste piece, Beijing’s Guangming Daily website took the story for a spin, trimming its length and citing Yangtse.com as its source. The Guangming piece was still online on Wednesday and the story’s editor said that she had not realised it was a joke until The Associated Press called.
The editor, Wang Miaomiao, said she wasn’t worried about the gaffe.
“Even if it was satire, the report itself was true. The content is not made up. Also, we have to go through a procedure to take something down from the website,” Wang said. “In addition, it is not a fabricated report, and it does not jeopardise society.”
The story next made it to the flagship paper of the Communist Party, the People’s Daily, on Tuesday along with a significant upgrade: a 55-photo slideshow of Kim. An editor at the People’s Daily website who refused to give his name said the story was picked up from the Guangming Daily site, running on three channels in Chinese and English.
Upon realising it was a spoof, the People’s Daily decided to take down their versions on Wednesday. But not before The Onion updated their original piece with a link to the People’s Daily and a shout-out: “For more coverage on The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive this year, Kim Jong-un, please visit our friends at the People’s Daily in China, a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion, Inc.”
“Exemplary reportage, comrades,” The Onion wrote.
It is not the first time China’s heavily censored media have fallen for a fictional report by the just-for-laughs The Onion.
In 2002, the Beijing Evening News, one of the capital’s biggest tabloids at the time, published as news the fictional account that the US Congress wanted a new building and that it might leave Washington. The Onion article was a spoof of the way sports teams threaten to leave cities in order to get new stadiums.
Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei.com, a firm that researches Chinese media and internet, said that one of the peculiarities of the Chinese news business is that stories can be freely shared by any other media outlet in their entirety, or edited, as long as the original source is credited somewhere on the page.
“It does mean that stuff gets circulated a lot more widely because you don’t have intellectual property restrictions on articles that you would in the US for example,” he said. “So when you mix that up with this culture of no fact-checking and not really having a news editor whose main job is seeking truth, then what you get is The Onion being taken seriously in the People’s Daily.”
A look at who else has been duped by The Onion
The online edition of China’s Communist Party mouthpiece and other state media that picked up a satirical article about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and reported it as straight news are not the first to be had by The Onion. Here is a list of other memorable instances in which the newspaper known for its news lampoons has duped others:
A US congressman seemed initially taken in by a February report by The Onion that an “US$8 billion Abortionplex” was opening in Kansas. US Republican John Fleming, or someone on his staff, posted the article on Facebook with the comment: “More from Planned Parenthood, abortion by the wholesale.” The article included references to a sprawling 900,000-square-foot facility with the amenities of a shopping mall and “2,000 rooms dedicated to the abortion procedure.” The Facebook post was taken down but not before it was captured and immortalised on the website Literally Unbelievable, which collects credulous Facebook responses to stories by The Onion.
“Americans for Ahmadinejad”
An Iranian news agency falls for an Onion story in September about a fictional survey that showed that most rural white Americans would rather vote for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than President Barack Obama. The English-language service of Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency republished the story, copying the original word for word. The Fars report even included a made-up quote from a fictional West Virginia resident who says he’d rather go to a baseball game with Ahmadinejad because “he takes national defence seriously, and he’d never let some gay protesters tell him how to run his country like Obama does.”
Capitol Police were not amused when The Onion posted an article and tweets in September last year saying that members of congress had taken a group of schoolchildren hostage. A police spokeswoman said an investigation had been launched into the website’s reporting, which included tweets and an article that spoke of congressional leaders, “brandishing shotguns and semiautomatic pistols”, taking a class of schoolchildren hostage and threatening to kill them if they didn’t get US$12 trillion in cash. It showed a doctored picture of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, holding a gun to a child’s head and reported that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was firing a handgun and wearing black pantyhose over his head. The story and tweets came a day after the FBI arrested a Massachusetts man accused of planning to bomb the Pentagon and the Capitol with explosive-filled model airplanes.
“Congress threatens to move”
One of Beijing’s biggest tabloids ran as news the fictional account by The Onion in 2002 that the US Congress wanted a new building and that it might leave Washington. The article was a spoof of the way sports teams threaten to leave cities in order to get new stadiums. The article was picked up by the Beijing Evening News, which acknowledged its mistake with a manager saying the paper would “consider this a warning and will strengthen supervision of our reports”. The manager said the article was sold to the newspaper by a free-lance writer and editors didn’t know the source before they published it.