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Debunk fake news and get paid by China's top news platform

The ByteDance platform takes a unique approach to help clean up online content in China

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

December 6, 2018: Updated to clarify Helo's presence in India.

Fake news is everywhere on social platforms. Facebook's plan to fight involves a War Room bringing together employees from multiple teams.

But China's most popular news aggregator, Jinri Toutiao, has a different approach -- cash.

Breaking down China's most popular news app, Toutiao

ByteDance's Jinri Toutiao launched a initiative called 100 (or Rumor Zero Zero) that will offer cash rewards between US$40 and US$440 to the 100 best articles that can help quash rumors online -- a problem that's plagued the site since the beginning.

It comes amid pressure put on platform operators by the Chinese government’s sweeping crackdown on online content. With the world’s biggest internet population and largest number of mobile subscribers, China has seen the central government tighten its grip on all online content, from news and celebrity gossip to off-color jokes.

The app’s management has banned 9,026 accounts and intercepted more than 500,000 articles containing rumors since May, through the use of both human censors and AI technology. It has so far commended several media outlets, such as the People’s Daily and online education site Guokr, for helping battle the spread of pseudoscience online.
ByteDance, which also owns short video-streaming platform TikTok, is also battling online rumors and misinformation outside China. Its international products, Topbuzz and Helo, have also come under fire for fake news. India-based Helo, for example, was accused of being used as a platform to spread religious hate and instigate violence in the country.
Last year, ByteDance’s US news platform Topbuzz was criticized for carrying news that were either conspiracy theories or just plain false, including Yoko Ono’s confession that she had an affair with Hilary Clinton in the 1970s. In September, Topbuzz decided to clean up its act by removing 2.6 million pieces of content and 4,600 accounts.
Fake news at Helo, however, has turned into a much bigger problem. The Hindustan Times found Helo displaying false quotes or graphic images designed to provoke outrage along religious lines, manipulating the longstanding tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the country. India has seen a number of violent incidents recently stirred up by online rumors.

Censors angry about erotic literature in China’s favorite news app

ByteDance told Abacus that it recognizes the problem and is working to fix it. In preparation for India’s general elections in 2019, the platform is partnering with a local, non-partisan fact-checking partner authority.

Still, some believe that Bytedance is treating the symptom, not the illness which is their business model.

“Their unique selling point is that they target content for users, based on what they are likely to click on, and even tailor headlines for them,” said Elliott Zaagman, executive coach and host of the China Tech Investor podcast. “This, regardless of whether it is fake or true, encourages sensationalism and outrage-mongering.”

Zaagman, however, credited ByteDance with doing a lot to clean up the content on Jinri Toutiao. The company has been targeted by regulators several times and even shut down for 24 hours in December last year.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.