Chinese local government apologises and blames artificial intelligence after insulting teacher on WeChat

Query about unequal pay had drawn mocking responses, provoking an internet backlash

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 5:37pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2018, 11:19am

A local government in eastern China has blamed an artificial intelligence program for insulting messages sent from its official WeChat platform to a teacher asking for help, according to a newspaper report.

The woman, identified only by the nickname “Xiao Lin” submitted a complaint about unequal pay to authorities in Guichi district, Anhui province, on Wednesday, China Youth Daily reported on Monday.

The replies she received read: “If you don’t speak, nobody will think you’re dumb” and “I keep hearing the sound of mosquitoes”.

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Xiao Lin was outraged and posted screenshots of the conversation to social media, which swiftly went viral.

The following day, she received a phone call from a representative of the messaging service, who attributed the comments to a “system error” and asked her to help them “clear up” the matter, according to a report published on Saturday by Xinan Evening News.

“My colleagues and I still didn’t understand,” Xiao Lin was quoted as saying. “This didn’t sound like an automatic reply. 

“They represent the official channel of the Guichi government. How can they do this?”

A local government official surnamed Zhu told the newspaper that the platform was operated by a third party.

On Saturday evening, the Guichi government issued an apology and explanation on its official Weibo account, and said the statement had been issued not by a person but by SimSimi, an artificial intelligence conversation program.

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The statement drew hundreds of comments, with the top-rated one noting that the government had responded to the technical issue but completely ignored the teacher’s original complaint.

Another highly rated post read: “This ‘mud horse’ government even hires a water army.” 

“Grass mud horse” is a popular phrase used online to indicate defiance of government censorship, because of its similarity to a vulgar phrase. “Water army” refers to astroturfing, or paying propagandists to make social media comments for the government.

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SimSimi, which learns its responses from user input, has a reputation for generating profane remarks, and has caused political scandal in the past. Last year, anti-bullying groups called for it to be banned for producing abusive content.

The program was banned in Thailand in 2012 after insulting prominent politicians.