Editors at China’s leading nationalist newspaper, Global Times, don’t often sympathize with the United States. So it was notable when the paper joined Americans last fall in scolding Facebook for spreading fake news. In an editorial titled “Western media’s crusade against Facebook,” the state-run paper argued that without government regulation — censorship, in other words — fake news, propaganda and rumor would spread disastrously across the internet.
Any justification for censorship in China used to be no more than a laughable excuse for erasing stories that made its leaders look bad. “The whole premise of media policy in China is that information must be controlled and directed in order to maintain social and political stability,” said David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.
But media criticism from America’s authoritarian rival now stings in a way it previously hasn’t. It turns out fake news can be a problem for a free and unregulated press as well ― one with serious consequences and no obvious democratic solution.
The internet and social media may have achieved something both staggering and chilling here, by muddying the question of whether U.S.-style democracy is better suited to separate fact from fiction than other political systems, even authoritarian ones. It could be that Americans are just as, if not more, susceptible to fake news as their Chinese counterparts, who live under a single-party regime.
“Generally speaking, facts are hostile to authoritarian systems,” Bandurski said. “These systems are rejoicing now because the commitment to truth seems to be failing in more democratic and open societies.”
The term “fake news” has been applied to a wide variety of misleading information — factually incorrect reports, rumors, spin and everything else that exists for reasons beyond the intrinsic value in disseminating truth.
“There is a very old word for much of what we call fake news: propaganda,” said Bandurski.
Americans tend to associate “propaganda” with government obfuscation, but any public or private institution, as well as any individual, can engage in campaigns of manipulation. The key difference between advertising and propaganda is who’s leading the exercise. In Chinese, those two concepts can be expressed in a single word, xuanchuan. Coca Cola’s ads are referred to as xuanchuan, as are Global Times editorials. Both want you to believe something that may or may not be true.
Although there aren’t any robust studies comparing the volume of fake news in China and the United States, both nations have been led astray by misinformation.
On the American side, a proliferation of stories in recent years have touted the alleged but unsubstantiated dangers of vaccines, which has had damaging effects on public health. Conspiracy theories have spread about Planned Parenthood and the infamous Pizzagate. U.S. fake news has even seeped into China, including the Seth Rich conspiracy.
In China, rumors exacerbated a public health crisis when it was suggested that Hong Kong had been designated an “infected port” amid the SARS outbreak of 2003. During Japan’s 2011 Fukushima meltdown, unsubstantiated reports about nuclear radiation spreading to China went viral.
To people frightened or harmed by what turns out to be false information, the Chinese government’s justification for policing the news might sound more reasonable. Orion Lewis, a Middlebury College professor who studies China’s brand of authoritarian media, argues that censorship can be driven simultaneously by pure and sinister motivations.
“I do think that the [Chinese] state uses its positive regulatory role for its politically repressive role,” Lewis said, “but I also think you can’t say that positive regulatory role doesn’t exist, in some shape or form.”
Beyond managing the internet, the Chinese government has tried to address the issue with an annual journalism review, published since 2001.
“Every year the Central Propaganda Department comes out with a report on ‘The Ten Big Fake News Stories’ and critiques them,” said one Chinese journalist, who asked not to be named in discussing censorship, a politically sensitive topic. “Our own department has to ‘study’ them, to try to raise vigilance.”
Such an approach would be unacceptable to Americans, who have worried about tyrannical bureaucracy since their country was founded, and for good reason. While a benevolent regulator of news — a kind of public fact-checker — might be tempting, there’s no way to assure that such an institution wouldn’t infringe on free speech.
State regulation hasn’t even solved the problem of fake news in China. The Chinese journalist stressed the importance of informal norms, rather than government institutions, in combating fake news. Her American counterparts might agree.
“I just don’t think our professional standards are high enough,” she said. Most of what would be considered “fake news” in China, she suggested, comes from reporters looking for attention.
“Because they know that everybody is out there spinning information to them, [the Chinese] are more careful in how they consume information.”
Whether either country can develop better norms around the media is a critical question, and one that may hinge on whether their citizens collectively can sort out what’s true from what’s false, especially on the internet. Here, Americans might not be better off than the Chinese. To some degree, Americans might even be at a disadvantage.
There’s a common misperception in the U.S. that because China has an authoritarian government, its citizens are all brainwashed. But the Chinese media vary greatly, from state-run outlets to private ones, and everything in between.
Huang Haifeng, a professor at the University of California, Merced, who studies the Chinese press and propaganda, divides that country’s media into two piles ― the mainstream, made up of outlets controlled by the state to varying degrees, and the seemingly endless number of online blogs and websites, many published anonymously. The latter media often run articles that mainstream newspapers can’t: racy stories about sex scandals, political intrigue, government failures and rumors of corruption — the kinds of topics that embarrass the Chinese Communist Party. Some of this certainly constitutes independent journalism, although there’s no easy way to know what’s true on the internet.
People in China now grow up learning to trust internet content, including rumor, over official state sources, Huang said. In fact, Communist Party members and non-members both seem to trust unofficial information more, giving more credence to stories they read on the internet. The government’s effort to shield its citizens, then, has often had the opposite effect of brainwashing: The biases of state media are so bluntly transparent that people become more trusting of alternatives to state media.
Take the evening news, which is aired across multiple channels at 7 p.m. every day. It’s a frequent object of satire. A few years ago, a fake evening news script and mocking guidelines made their way around Chinese social media, with fill-in-the-blanks for politicians, locations and events inserted in a comically formulaic text.
All this skepticism doesn’t mean the Chinese government’s ubiquitous propaganda is pointless. Huang argues that it still signals the breadth of state’s power, persuading the public there’s no use in opposing the Communist Party. He’s also careful to note that people’s skepticism is most clearly observed in response to “hard” propaganda ― as opposed to more subtle forms, such as asserting China’s claim to disputed small islands in the South China Sea by including them alongside major Chinese cities in the nightly weather report.
“I do not see Chinese people as being brainwashed,” said Lewis. Research on Eastern Bloc countries in the 1980s, he noted, also found that official propaganda engendered skepticism, though not always resistance. “There’s a pretty long literature that [suggests] citizens are pretty savvy about seeing and understanding the existence of propaganda and reading between the lines, particularly if you know it exists,” he said.
In the United States, however, people might not recognize that bias. Breitbart and Infowars can reflexively scorn President Donald Trump’s political foes, for example, but they aren’t as clearly labeled as the Chinese state-run news. Americans also have a tendency to confuse the existence of a free press — their freedom to read a nearly infinite number of unregulated media outlets — with their ability to discern truth from those sources.
“I do think that there is something fundamentally different about knowing that a propaganda apparatus exists, and then allowing that to calibrate your expectations and going from there,” Lewis said. “Because they know that everybody is out there spinning information to them, [the Chinese] are more careful in how they consume information. Whereas — and I do see this as a problem in the U.S. — consumers do not have that same degree of caution,” he said.
Lewis sees the “steady erosion of traditional media’s control over the public sphere” as part of the problem in the United States. In this environment, the burden of gathering accurate information falls more heavily on average citizens.
America’s ideological segregation can hinder that truth seeking. Increasing partisanship and smaller echo chambers mean people are less likely to encounter ideas that could challenge their settled views. A study published in the Columbia Journalism Review mapped media polarization in the 19 months leading up to the 2016 election and found that readers on the right gravitated to sources like Breitbart and Fox News, rarely crossing over to more centrist mainstream outlets. Clinton supporters were more likely to rely on a variety of mainstream sources, but didn’t venture into the Breitbart-centered universe.
China doesn’t appear to suffer a similar level of partisan division or ideological separation, although that’s not to say the phenomenon doesn’t exist. There are factions within the Communist Party, from liberal to conservative, and there’s ideological variation among the public.
Lewis said he saw evidence of this in studies he conducted using online surveys. “We do find that there is a substantial distribution between conservative and more liberal, and in fact the online population skews more liberal than conservative,” he said. These different groups “consume different types of media,” he added. “So even though we don’t have these partisan silos in China, we do have these more state-oriented versus more independent.”
Recent research on China’s ideological spectrum found some differences between urban and rural areas that would also sound familiar to Americans.
“In regions with higher levels of urbanization, trade, economic development, we’re more likely to find people who have preferences that are more oriented toward liberal political institutions, who are less likely to be nationalistic, who are more likely to be pro free market and more likely to be supportive of more liberal social values,” said professor Jennifer Pan of Stanford University, who conducted the research with professor Yiqing Xu of the University of San Diego.
“You would imagine freedom of the press and freedom of speech are cherished [in the United States]. ... So that was my impression, which turned out not to be true.”
But Pan emphasized that the ideological divisions are not equivalent to America’s. “There is some diversity in preferences, and there are some preferences that go with others,” she said. “But this is a long, long way from anything that can be remotely characterized as polarized or partisan.”
The political opinions of the Chinese seem to be more fluid and based on specific issues, rather than aligning on a distinct liberal-conservative divide, according to Dan Chen, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College who studies internet communities in China. The real differences, Chen said, are “largely based on competence” ― that is, the people’s assessment of the government’s competence in different areas.
Moreover, since most Chinese aren’t members of a political party and those that are don’t always strongly identify with party ideology — it’s often just a career booster ― there isn’t the same type of labeling based on political tribe that you see in the U.S., which can turn toxic in conversation. Scientific issues like climate change, for example, aren’t steeped in political division, and there’s less obsession over political correctness.
Although the Communist Party isn’t very honest or direct, that doesn’t mean Chinese citizens aren’t. In a bizarre twist, the country’s one-party system, even with rampant censorship, may now facilitate greater openness between ordinary citizens than does America’s two-party system. Political dialogue in China becomes less an argument between two sides than a discussion to clarify facts in the face of a shared obfuscator, the government. The Chinese may value direct conversation more precisely because it’s the best way to discern truth in a system without trustworthy media.
Meanwhile, in democratic America, which sees itself as the world’s bastion of free speech, political forces are trying to delegitimize the reliable media by repeatedly labeling critical stories as fake news. Chen said it’s been jarring to watch, especially for someone who was raised in a more controlled system.
“I grew up in China so, from an outsider’s perspective, you would imagine freedom of the press and freedom of speech are cherished, and the media, as the fourth estate, should enjoy high status in a society [like the United States],” she said. “So that was my impression, which turned out not to be true.”
Bandurski put it more sharply.
“What we are seeing around the struggle over fake news is not a question at all of what political systems are best suited to seeking the truth,” he said. “It is a question of whether truth matters, or worse a conviction that the truth is dictated by political necessity.”
Clarification: Paraphrases of comments by Huang Haifeng have been updated to articulate more clearly how both Communist Party members and non-members view the differences in trustworthiness between official state-affiliated media and other online channels.