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Trump Protesters Falsely Accused of Anti-Chinese Racism in Viral Weibo Story

Fake information is not just a problem for American social media.

by Sarah Jeong
Nov 15 2016, 11:00am

Image: CC-By-SA 2.0

The popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo sent a push notification to countless smartphones in China on Monday, advertising a post that claimed that anti-Trump demonstrators in the United States were responsible for a surge of hatred against Chinese-Americans.

Weibo is the Chinese language equivalent of Twitter. Although Chinese speakers do use Twitter, the US-based service is blocked in mainland China. Weibo is not, and subsequently enjoys massive popularity on the mainland.

Like Twitter, Weibo features trending topics, and sometimes sends push notifications to your smartphone about a current popular trend if you have the app installed. A key difference is that hashtags on Weibo have their own pages, one that is controlled by a "host" that started the hashtag, or paid for it. That host can pin a post to the top of the page.

"I've talked to well-educated, relatively liberal Chinese people who have asked me if Hillary really assassinated a guy."

On Monday, the hashtag "Trump wins" featured a post that recounted stories of slurs against Asian-Americans, and attributed them to anti-Trump protesters. The post even specifically claimed that journalist Wilfred Chan had received racist abuse and implied it was from anti-Trump protesters. It was, in fact, abuse from Trump supporters.

Christina Xu, a tech ethnographer who is currently in China, first noted what was happening. "Chinese audience, who (reasonably) don't understand US race dynamics, will believe this 100%. Reinforces belief that Trump is better for China," she wrote on Twitter.

Xu said that this misinformation might be the result of a translation error, but said that the "more likely" explanation was that it was "willfully directed by someone(s) stoking support of Trump [and] defensive ethnocentrism."

In an interview, she said that there had been a surge of misinformation in China about the American election. She wasn't completely sure why, but she noted that "there are really too many [false news stories] for it to be a coincidence, in my opinion."

"I've talked to well-educated, relatively liberal Chinese people who have asked me if Hillary really assassinated a guy," Xu said to me. (Hillary Clinton did not assassinate anyone.) "Someone here told me the other day they heard that Trump had won 90 percent of the popular vote." (Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.)

Earlier in the week, she also tweeted about a Weibo trending topic that claimed that Clinton had blamed Obama for her electoral loss.

Xu recounted one time that her father sent her an article about "a list of DNC mysterious deaths linked to Hillary." She found it so absurd that she spent time to look up where it had come from. "The only place I found this list [of names] really was Breitbart," she said, referring to the right-wing news site. Her theory is that someone is translating Breitbart articles into Chinese and feeding them into social media.

China's government has been known to crack down on false news reports spread via social media, part of a policy that goes back years. However, critics claim that the Chinese government's ultimate aim is to suppress dissenting speech. Academics who study Weibo have noted that some users have adopted a coded lingo for bypassing censorship.

On Sunday, President-Elect Donald Trump chose Stephen Bannon, the head of Breitbart Media, as as "chief strategist and special counselor." Bannon previously took a leave of absence from Breitbart to be Trump's campaign manager.

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