It turns out the Chinese have a problem with fake news too.
From Facebook’s Alex Stamos to Steve Ballmer, American tech executives have sought in recent days to dispel the notion there’s a swift solution to the proliferation of spurious or insidious information on the internet, a phenomenon critics say wields an outsized and unhealthy influence on public discourse and elections. Baidu Inc. President Zhang Yaqin says China faces similar challenges, despite operating one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated online surveillance machines.
Companies in China, where freedom of speech is curtailed by censorship programs, have long used a mix of advanced technologies and human cybercops to police the internet. Baidu, China’s largest search engine, employs technology to spot potentially false information before turning to local agencies such as the cyberspace administration to verify items. One of the country’s three largest internet players, it checks out 3 billion claims of fake news every year — an issue it calls a global challenge.
“Every year we see somewhere around 3 billion claims, requests that we need to verify that might turn out to be fake news,” Zhang said. “We’re using a combination of technology and content authorization to minimize the fake news.”
From Tencent Holdings Ltd. to Sina Corp.’s Weibo, the country’s social media employ technology and armies of vetters to scour its services for undesirable content, which in China’s case goes beyond rumors and unsubstantiated claims to include any and all information deemed harmful to social stability. Yet even the best-funded online operators have difficulty keeping up: the nation’s cybercops fined Tencent, Weibo and Baidu as recently as September for carrying illegal content. Days later, Weibo — China’s answer to Twitter — began recruiting and rewarding “supervisors” from among its own users to report problems.
“We have an obligation to make sure the user gets good content, but it continues to be a challenge for us, for other companies in China, and companies in the U.S.,” Zhang said.
The problem persists despite China having some of the strictest rules aimed at preventing the spread of “false news.” It recently established regulations forcing forum-posters to register with their real identities, and its laws threaten jail time for posting defamatory false information, according to Weibo’s latest annual report.
But Zhang said fixing the problem required the use of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and even closer cooperation with relevant government regulators.
Pressure is building on social media services from Google to Twitter to try and curb the proliferation of fake news and targeted ads. Facebook’s chief security officer, Stamos, said last week it was very difficult to spot fake news and propaganda using computer programs. That’s a view echoed by Ballmer, the former Microsoft Corp. chief executive.
Executives from Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. are scheduled to testify before Congress on Nov. 1 about Russian use of their sites to influence the 2016 U.S. election — a hot-button topic that the social media and internet services are under pressure to address. Stamos, who’s handling Facebook’s investigation, warned about hoping for technical solutions that could have unintended consequences of ideological bias.
“I’m not sure you can say that is Facebook’s job, they’re not in the news business, they pass along other people’s news,” Ballmer told Bloomberg Television. “Same thing with Google. That’s part of the issue here is things can look authentic.”
Baidu itself has spent much of the past year fighting one category of misleading information in particular. In 2016, regulators cracked down on medical ads after accusations they may have contributed to the much-publicized death of a student. Subsequent sanctions nearly derailed the company’s core search advertising business, and Baidu has since promised to tighten vetting.
— With assistance by David Ramli, Emily Chang, and Selina Wang.