The Enduring Gullibility of Chinese State Media

Xinhua's translation of an Andy Borowitz column alleging Jeff Bezos accidentally bought the Washington Post on Amazon is merely the latest failure to detect satire.
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bezosbanner.jpgXinhua reported a satirical story regarding the Washington Post sale to Jeff Bezos as true. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

On Tuesday morning satirist Andy Borowitz wrote a column for the New Yorker lampooning the recent sale of the Washington Post to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. The tech billionaire didn't actually intend to buy the Post, Borowitz wrote, but he accidentally clicked on it while shopping on Amazon -- and now he wants to return it.

For fans of Borowitz, this was a typically amusing riff on the news. Not Xinhua. China's state-run news service translated Borowitz' story into Chinese and presented it as a straight news piece, and other Chinese publications dutifully picked it up. Xinhua soon realized its mistake and deleted the article -- but the damage was done. (Shanghaiist preserved a screenshot for posterity.)

The snafu was hardly the first time the Chinese press has fallen for obvious satire. Here is a list of similar incidents that have happened in the last year alone:

  • China Central Television (CCTV) fell for an April Fool's joke from Richard Branson that Virgin Airlines would begin flying passengers in a glass-bottomed airplane between London and Scotland.
  • Xinhua jumped on an Onion story anointing North Korean president Kim Jong Un as "the world's sexiest man" and ran with it, adding a 55-photo slideshow showing the dictator in a series of virile poses.
  • The 21st Century Business Herald fell for an earlier Borowitz piece reporting that a glitch in Windows software caused North Korea to delay a missile launch -- and that the country was considering declaring war on Microsoft.
  • The Herald also fell for a satirical Daily Currant piece reporting that the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had declared bankruptcy for, among other reasons, "credit card debt and jewelry from Tiffany's" but that he "still supported Keynesian economics."
One possible explanation for these mishaps is that, in general, humor doesn't translate very well. But Chinese culture is rich with satire, and while the country's media lacks an Onion equivalent, the millions of news savvy Chinese populating micro-blogs would have no trouble picking out the obvious absurdity of Borowitz' story. 

So why does this keep happening? The real issue appears to be sloppiness. As Christina Larson of Bloomberg Businessweek points out, authoritarian regimes are often perceived to practice well-oiled message control, but this isn't entirely true: Although mainstream Chinese editors are careful to avoid political mistakes -- like referring to Taiwan as a separate country -- they're more than susceptible to errors that would embarrass a high school newspaper. Earlier this week, both Xinhua and the Global Times illustrated a story about capital punishment in Western countries with still photos taken from a fetish porn film. (Apparently the "prisoner's" near-nudity and the "guard's" green hair didn't arouse the editors' suspicion.)

Traditionally the Chinese government has cared little what foreigners think of the country's media, but this has begun to change: China has lately poured a lot of resources into turning sources like the China Daily and CCTV into internationally respected media brands. As this process continues, Beijing might want to invest in a vital, if less obvious, area: bullshit detection.
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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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