THERE ARE RED FACES all over the media this week after an insane story about a coup in China was shared around the world.
Huge numbers of journalists, east and west, took a clearly invented tale about the arrest of Chinese leader Xi Jinping seriously. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire, as they say, and there is a column of smoke the likes of which we haven’t seen since July 64 AD pouring out of Beijing,” said the Australian edition of The Spectator, a UK title.
The ludicrous tale spread through the Internet worldwide, reaching millions of readers as it rose sharply on Google trends worldwide. In India, it reached the list of top three biggest news stories, despite not containing a word of truth.
Many versions included the information that there was no evidence for the story – but omitted the fact that under the most basic rules of journalism, stories with zero evidence would normally not be considered printable. The fact that it was so widely reported is yet another nail in the coffin of mainstream media credibility, said numerous voices on social media.
Here’s what happened:
In the past few days, Jennifer Zeng, a member of the Falun Gong (a cult whose leader Li Hongzhi teaches that space aliens introduced science into the world so they can take control of human bodies), put out an astonishing story that was picked up and spread by people like Gordon Chang, a United States. anti-China campaigner. Ms Zeng, who also conducts an anti-China campaign from the U.S., spread the “rumor” on Twitter and later on her blog and YouTube that there had been a coup in China. It was accompanied by a short video of army vehicles on the road.
She provided no sources or evidence of any kind.
This is the scary thing: THAT DIDN’T MATTER.
MAJOR MEDIA SHARED IT
Major western publication Newsweek wrote up the story, saying that there was no evidence as yet, adding: “Newsweek has contacted the Chinese Foreign ministry for comment.”
The allegation also appeared on MSN.com, which said: “The rumour goes – Xi Jinping has been removed as the head of China’s People’s Liberation Army or PLA and has been placed under house arrest.” The version printed by MSN, lifted from an Indian source, seemed to add meat to the story: “There have been reports of some sort of revolt within the China’s People’s Liberation Army over the ‘Zero Covid Policy’ in China that mandates anyone who travels out of the country to undergo a rigorous quarantine process.”
The tale of the Chinese leader’s arrest was also taken seriously in the UK, with the Daily Telegraph printing that “The increasingly febrile atmosphere coincided with unusual rumours swirling online on Saturday about a potential military coup.”
ALSO IN INDIA AND AMERICA
In India, the rumor was printed by large and small media, including big names such as The Hindustan Times, ZeeNews India, India Today, Daily News and Analysis, and many others, and was the talk of the country.
In America, most newspaper steered clear, but popular online news site newsmax.com went to town on it: “ ‘Something is up with China and its President Xi Jinping, but ‘we don’t know what it is,’ retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Blaine Holt said Sunday on Newsmax in response to the rumors reports of an attempted coup against the two-term leader.”
Jennifer Zeng’s religious group, Falun Gong, which produces news media under titles such as Epoch Times and NDTV, has been a major source of anti-China news. It is widely supported by the anti-China lobby in Hong Kong, including UK-based Benedict Rogers, a right-wing political activist. Rogers has spoken at Falun Gong meetings and is a key figure guiding UK parliamentary policy on Hong Kong.
DEATH OF CREDIBILITY
It’s not clear whether the tale was invented by the Falun Gong or anti-China sources in India. Ms Zeng pushed follow-up posts backtracking on her report later but it was too late.
Many voices around the world are today shaking their heads in amazement at the implosion of journalistic standards. “Honestly, I can’t believe anyone would be so stupid as to discuss a coup in China without first verifying that it actually happened,” said Jerry Grey, a popular British-Australian commentator based in China.
“The whole thing seems like a massive own goal for Zeng, NTD/Epoch and anyone else sharing it,” said Curt McArdle, a British teacher. “All it does is paint them as either gullible or untrustworthy…”
The affair leaves the world with an urgent question about journalism which needs answering, some commentators said. “Why are we—not just China or the US but practically the whole world—so soft with journalists spreading unverified stories?” asked Jerry Wang on Twitter.
Davide Melia, who works as a teacher in China, said: “I am quite jealous of people who get paid good money to just sit around and occasionally churn out completely made-up stuff that a not-insignificant number of people will take totally at face value.”
Image at the top from fridayeveryday