The picture below in which a young girl kneed down to help an elderly homeless man eat is probably the most shared picture yesterday on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging service. Tens of thousands of netizens were moved and gave the girl names like “the most beautiful girl in Shenzhen” and “China’s most beautiful post-90s generation” (born after 1990s). The story was once a top trending topic on Sina Weibo, shared by numerous media and celebrity accounts with millions of followers. But only one day later, the story was proved a publicity stunt.
In the original news, this girl called Wen Fang, who now works in the city of Shenzhen, was said to be born in 1991 into a poor family in Hunan. On the afternoon of March 24, she came across a starving homeless man on her way home: “I saw him and was reminded of my own grandpa.” So she bought him a warm meal and helped him finish.
In today’s China where people intentionally ignore fell-down elderly to avoid trouble, the story is especially heartwarming and uplifting, that is to say, if it’s true. While most netizens were happily sharing the story to spread love and “positive energy (正能量)”, some journalists at Nandu smelled something fishy – the name of an exhibition, where the girl was said to work at, was mentioned several times throughout the story. After confirming with staff working at the exhibition, it’s pretty clear that the whole thing was staged.
According to a Mrs Li at a nearby newspaper stand, the elderly homeless man in the picture has been around the area for quite some time. On the afternoon when the picture was taken, “A man and a girl came up. The girl fed the homeless man some food. The skinny man took a few photos. And then the pair was gone.” Some more digging revealed that the story may be the work of a notorious “online marketer” who is known for cooking up fake viral stories.
Needless to say, those netizens whose hearts were touched by the story now felt cheated. Like 爱吾所爱 commented: “I was so moved this morning when I read the news. Now the only thing I feel is anger.”
The credibility of Weibo as an information source is once again called into question. Netizen 喔喔你说的西瓜虫 sighed: “Everything can be fake on Weibo. I feel so disappointed.” Netizen 悠you球 asked: “How many of the other uplifting stories are fabricated? I feel very angry. Whoever behind this is playing with netizens’ goodwill.” Another netizen 俞小小小玉 also asked: “Why don’t these media confirm a story’s authenticity before posting on Weibo?”
Many went after Zheng Xiaohong, a journalist from Chinanews.com, who was shown as the author of the original story. Netizens asked Zheng to apologize and explain what exactly happened. Like netizen 李佳佳Audrey asked: “What’s the relationship between the journalist and whoever staged the story? Is there money involved? Shouldn’t the media stand out and apologize?”
With over 500 million registered users, and as one of the very few social media platforms in China where netizens were allowed a certain degree of freedom of speech, Weibo’s role in information dissemination among China’s online population is immense. On the other hand, Weibo is known for harboring thousands of zombie accounts and marketing accounts that care about nothing but their number of followers. Since marketing on Weibo usually uses pay per share/retweet, many of these marketing accounts would cook up eye-catching stories to lure in more shares. The current case may be an example.