Translation: Did COVID Begin in Italy? Debunking Fake News on WeChat

In recent years, WeChat has increasingly been used as a distribution platform for “fake news” on a variety of topics including elections in the U.S. and Australia and COVID-19On June 6, the WeChat public account @新岭南观察 (New Lingnan Observer) posted an article titled “Italian Prime Minister Admits that the Coronavirus Was Spreading in Italy Six Months Before China!” New Lingnan Observer deleted the article after Gu Xiaojin, a professor of journalism at Shenzhen University, raised doubts about the story’s authenticity, but not before the post gained more than 100,000 views.

New Lingnan Observer was registered in April 2020 and has posted more than 200 articles, most of which relate to world politics. According to screenshots shared by Gu Xiaojin, the account frequently fabricated pro-China quotes, falsely attributing them to various international media outlets, including Reuters and Radiotelevisione Italiana. In two separate articles, the account cited “CBS Online News Integrated Media” and “Manchester Post,” neither of which exists. Gu messaged the account, asking for proof of the COVID-19 story. They deleted the story shortly afterwards.

This week, Gu shared a story on his own WeChat public account debunking New Lingnan Observer and noting patterns among this and similar accounts. CDT has translated an excerpt of his post:

Right now, there are some self media that engage with the hot topics of the day and meticulously fabricate lengthy international news stories involving China. They pretend to quote from mainstream Western media, including photos and foreign names, concocting what appear to be thorough, timely, truthful “authoritative reports” to dupe their readers. They are all variations on a theme: borrowing Western government officials or media personalities to speak for China and pander to a certain mood online. The kicker is that these “international rumors” exploit the public’s asymmetric access to domestic and international news to propagate themselves, easily gaining hundreds of thousands [of reactions]. The vast majority of readers remain in the dark, to the point that they actively share [this misinformation].

The [WeChat] public account @新岭南观察 [New Lingnan Observer] is one example. On the morning of June 7, they published “Italian Prime Minister Admits that Italian Coronavirus Was Spreading Six Months Before China!” The article states, “Breaking news from the Italian Broadcasting Corporation: Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi … admitted for the first time during a video interview in his office that ‘as early as the summer of 2019, the novel coronavirus was spreading in the northern Italian cities of Milan, Genoa, and Venice.’” It goes on, “Draghi’s interview sent a shockwave through Europe,” and adds, “Reuters reports that Draghi’s interview is direct proof that the blame for COVID-19 poured on Beijing by the U.S. and the West is nothing but pure lies spun out of thin air. This is a hefty slap in the face of the U.S. and its allies, a most resounding clap.” Then it gabs on about the U.N. and W.H.O. taking action on this. The article is 3700 characters long [approximately 2,200 English words] and accompanied by numerous photos, including one of Draghi in his office.

The story had 100,000+ [reactions] by the time my friend forwarded it to me on the morning of June 7—you can see how fast it spread. But the content, style, and tone all smelled like fake news to me. I searched through the last month of reporting from Radiotelevisione Italiana, the last two days of Reuters, and every other source they cited, and I Googled the article’s keywords. I got nothing. There was not a trace online of the “news that sent shockwaves through Europe.” It had to be fake!

So I turned my attention to the public account that had posted this story. The account was registered in Hunan Province by an “individual,” listed as female, on April 9, 2020. The original name of the account was “Lingnan Language,” and was changed to “New Lingnan Observer” on October 18. Their WeChat ID is yh1976zsw. What’s shocking is that this little account, with only “four followers,” has a tremendous output of “original content”: 206 articles since the account was registered last year, each one an “in-depth” report + commentary of at least 3000 characters [about 1800 English words], each labeled “original content”; 181 of these were posted after the account changed its name. An individual generating this type of content can usually post at most one article per day. For instance, I have posted 11 articles so far this month.

Just as astonishing is that, aside from glomming on to some national stories— “The Three-Child Policy,” “Farewell, Yuan Longping,” “Hupan U. Gets New Name,” “Wen Jiabao’s Letter”—New Lingnan Observer is all about world news, and practically every story is “big.” Of the last 50 articles posted since April, 42 of them are international stories (including Hong Kong and Taiwan)—that’s 80%. They’re all written by “青山同风” [“In the style of Qingshan”]. And this “world news” is coming out hot: if it’s not from “yesterday” it’s as of “this morning.” Outlets with a global focus, like Reference News and the Global Times, can’t pump out “in-depth reports” this fast. If it is fabricated, the evidence is all there.

So after I confirmed that the April [sic] 7 article was fake, at my earliest convenience (noon that same day) I asked Lingnan for the sources or links they used for this story. They didn’t respond. I wrote to them again: “I have searched a number of sources, and I believe that this story is fake. If so, please take it down, as it has already misled many readers.” If they ignored me again, I would escalate. Twenty minutes after I sent the second message, they deleted the article. But they never replied to me.

The next day, I told the friend who had sent me the story what had happened. He said the article was blowing up on groups he is in with fellow alumni and colleagues. He shared my findings right away, and said that everyone was thanking him for it.

This morning—four days later—I finally saw a notice on the public account of the Chinese embassy in Italy: “Recently, several Chinese self-media have published articles claiming that, according to Radiotelevisione Italia, the Italian prime minister stated that COVID-19 was spreading in Italy six months before it was in China. A number of internet users and media outlets have contacted us to confirm the story. We have conducted a thorough investigation and are issuing the following notice: The leader of Italy said no such thing, and RAI reported no such news. We trust that most internet users will not be misled and spread this false information.”

The embassy’s notice was read 11,000 times, a far cry from the 100,000+ views the fake news story got in the one or two hours it was online. As you can see, the rumors themselves are much more powerful than the debunking of those rumors. And today, a Baidu search of the fake news headline still turns up results on many websites and self-media accounts. This is the reality of the internet: as long as it can draw eyeballs, fake news will always be ahead of the truth.

Yakexi contributed to this post.


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