A real-life Black Mirror moment, How a joke evolved into news

Alia | April 14th, 2012 - 8:55 pm

On April 9, Offbeat China wrote a blog entry titled “3D Titanic suggests stricter censorship, No 3D boobs for Chinese viewers”. A quote in the post on why China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television made the cut decision was picked up by many major media outlets. The quote, which was believed to be from a reliable news source at the time of writing the blog post, was verified as a joke by an offended Chinese netizen. Below is a letter from 豆瓣逗你妹, who originated the fake news, explaining how his joke evolved into news.

The birth of an international joke – How the Titanic “fear of touch” fake news came into being

“Viewers and media raised questions about why the nudity scenes in Titanic, while stayed uncensored in its original release in 1998, got cut out in 2012. Recently the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television gave an explanation: ‘Considering the vivid 3D effects, we fear that viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people’s viewing. To avoid potential conflicts between viewers and out of consideration of building a harmonious ethical social environment, we’ve decided to cut off the nudity scenes.”’

This paragraph disseminated like virus, first on the Chinese internet, then among foreign media. When I saw that James Cameron himself, in an interview, claimed “They feared that Chinese men would reach out their hands towards the screen for a touch” and emphasized “This is true,” I realized that I’ve made the most successful fake news in years.

The joke was made so popular that I, myself, find it hard to believe that it was fabricated. But fake is fake, truth is truth. It is fake and it is from an evil joke by a lonely loser who soon will graduate from college.

The idea of fabricating fake news as satire and entertainment came from an American satire news organization The Onion. If you want to get a quick idea of their style, I recommend you to watch a 2008 movie The Onion Movie. Personally, I became familiar with such culture thanks to a non-popular Web figure “Huang Bo Ma” (his Renren, Douban and Weibo). Here are also some of his fake news works, many of which used to be very popular on the Internet (one, two, three).

People will notice that all fake news works are tagged as #Monologue# to distinguish from authentic news.  When I wrote the “fear of touch” joke, considering people’s unfamiliarity with the culture of The Onion, I changed the tag into #fake news# so that it won’t be seen as true. I posted the joke on my Renren album and my Sina Weibo account. Due to my small number of fans on Sina Weibo, the joke was soon buried. But the screenshot on Renren became viral. The iron was, the joke became a hit exactly because the #fake news# tag was lost in people’s constant re-posting.

At the night of April 8, I noticed that pageviews of my Renen photo of Kate Winslet with the joke climbed like crazy. Out of curiosity, I did a search on Sina Weibo and found that the joke has been disseminated like virus. What surprised me most was that First Cai Jing, a verified news media account by Sina, shared the joke, not only without the #fake news# tag, but with a #chief commentary# tag. Partly out of concern that sharing such fake news would bring down First Cai Jings’ credibility as news media, and partly because I, as a poor college student who didn’t know where the first job would be, cannot possibly be their “chief commenter”, I send them a private note, together with links to my original piece on Renren and Weibo, and told them that it was fake. Their editor soon responded, apologized and deleted their Weibo post.

I love movies, keeping a pace of over 100 movies per year in the past two years. In the ocean of movies, Titanic stayed firmly as my top ten favorite. I think most viewers of Titanic would agree that the scene where Rose, wearing the Heart of the Ocean, posed for Jack to draw was extremely important to the movie – the discovery of the drawing lead to the unfolding of the love story.

But words came out from the April 6 preview was that the nudity scene was cut out. Thinking of the uncensored version in 1998; and in a time when it was claimed that we live in much freer economic, political and cultural environments, I simply cannot make sense of the decision. So by putting myself in the shoes of SARFT and by using my own imagination, I fabricated the joke to make fun of the cultural censorship.

I used to fear that the joke may lead to more misunderstanding. So I tried to contact all those who shared the news on Sina Weibo and hoped that they can clarify the situation. But at the same time, I found the piece has gone viral on Twitter, Netease, Tencent Weibo, Sohu Weibo, as well as all kinds of BBS. My action to stop it from spreading was like to pour a basin of water into an explosion.

The next morning, Phoenix Entertainment News released news citing my joke and treated as an official response from SARFT. Probably because they verified the authenticity of the news very quickly, they took down the news not long after. But between the release of the deletion, other news media like XInmin had enough time to share the original article. Until then, the fake news, or rumor, if you will, finished its evolution from a joke to a piece of news.

[And here was where Offbeat China got its part in the chain of rumors. When I first saw the “news” on Sina Weibo, it was from a relatively reliable media source - I even bookmarked the Weibo post. When I started writing a blog post out of it and failed to find the original source I bookmarked, I simply googled out the quote and translated it into English without giving it too much thought (Though I did think of the possibility of it being a joke - should have done more research), which, as it turned out, wasn’t a smart decision – I should have at least made a note that the information was unverified. Then the quote started to be picked up by a few Western media. Some cited Offbeat China as the source; some didn’t. So..I hereby sincerely apologize for the lack of judgement on my part.]

I didn’t mean to blame First Cai Jing mentioned above. On the contrary, I applauded for their quick response to my private message. I don’t want to blame them because they admitted that they’ve made a mistake; and because that there was no way for them to verify the authenticity of something that has been re-posted so many times by other verified accounts on Sina Weibo.

I pitied these media when I found the following: “Considering the vivid 3D effects, we fear that viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people’s viewing. To avoid potential conflicts between viewers and out of consideration of building a harmonious ethical social environment, we’ve decided to cut off the nudity scenes.”

It was the first time when I saw my writing was so seriously translated into English. The translated paragraph appeared in numerous foreign media since April 12. I did a search in Google and found news media of high credibility like Gaurdian, Daily Mail, NBC and Foreign Policy also cited the quote.

As the original writer, I summarized a clear route of the evolution: me – joke – fake news – the Internet – Chinese media – foreign media – director James Cameron. I came to realize that when a piece of fake news, or rumor, made a breakthrough from the Internet to Chinese media, it was very hard to verify its authenticity due to constant citing among media.

This is one bad thing about fast information dissemination, like demonstrated in British TV drama Black Mirror.  But if we want to enjoy the convenience of technology advancements, we also need to get used to the bad things technologies brought because if we start another anti-technology revolution to avoid such bad things, we will get consequences that are beyond our control.

The last paragraph is to SARFT who has received a ton of criticism due to the fake news. Fan Bingbing used to say, ‘The worse the criticism I got, the better the compliment I deserve.” Here I want to say the same to SARFT – the worse the criticism you got, the worse than worse you should expect. Probably years after, you would justify your decision by saying that it was all due to the time and political pressure. But from the moment you decided to cut more when you had the choice of cutting less, you lost the chance of getting mercy from me.

 [Offbeat China: It was a lesson for all of us, Chinese media professionals, me as a blogger and Western news professionals alike. But to put up this letter from 豆瓣逗你妹 wasn't just a gesture of apologizing, the letter was a great case study for media students out there.]

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4 Responses to “A real-life Black Mirror moment, How a joke evolved into news”

  1. [...] without the crucial “fake news” hashtag the original poster claims to have placed.  Offbeat China offered a good analysis of the joke turned into fact.  Their insight is particularly helpful, as their original post played a role in launching the [...]

  2. shopping, shop…

    [...]A real-life Black Mirror moment, How a joke evolved into news | Offbeat China[...]…

  3. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  4. [...] [Disclaimer]: Sincere apologies from Offbeat China for not having done more research and failing to point out that it was unverified information. At the time of this post, the ‘official’ reason was universally cited as from an official from SARFT (e.g., Tianya, Xinmin and a number of other more reliable news media who subsequently deleted their posts). Remembering seeing the quote from some pretty serous news source but failing to track down the original source, Offbeat China left the “fear of touch” quote as is.  Until recently, it was verified that it was Chinese netizens making fun of SARFT. 豆瓣逗你妹, who originally wrote the joke, had a long post  explaining how a “joke” evolved into a piece of “news”. Offbeat China translated the post into English here. [...]

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