One year on from the US elections and the phrase ‘fake news’ is so ubiquitous that no one says ‘that’s not true’ anymore - “did you eat the last piece of pizza?”…“no, that’s fake news!”. It may have dominated political discourse to the point that the Collins Dictionary made it their word of the year, but it’s not just Western countries that are struggling to get a grip on this phenomenon.

Where China is concerned, the word ‘fake’ has most commonly been associated with physical goods. It’s a stigma that the country is still trying hard to eradicate as it seeks to grow its domestic exports. However, Zhang Yaqin, President of Baidu, China’s largest search engine, recently revealed the alarming scale of the problem with online fakes. He says his company gets around three billion claims of fake news each year that they then need to verify and action.

The root cause is the same as anywhere else – it’s only possible because of the virality of social media. In China, the epidemic has been fuelled by a new generation of independent publishers known as 'self media'. The closed nature of WeChat, which has over 900 million users, means it is becoming an increasingly fertile breeding ground for fake news (a problem its parent company Tencent is committed to addressing with new tools).

The impact isn’t just being felt in political circles, either, it has already been shown to have serious consequences for brands’ reputations and can be commercially damaging if it isn’t addressed. National pride or food safety concerns are particularly dangerous subject areas, as two major corporates have already discovered.

KFC became embroiled in the former last year after an international tribunal issued a ruling unfavourable to China regarding the South China Sea. As a flagship American brand, a number of their branches in China were targeted by protesters, a situation not helped by the spreading of rumours like “every penny you spend in KFC will be used to produce bullets to shoot at your people in the future” on social media.

This summer fellow fast food chain McDonalds showed deft crisis management to counter a misleading story about its ice cream. The images of dirty equipment posted on Twitter by an employee in the US which quickly spread across the world were real, but it turned out that the machine in question never came into contact with any of their food products. Conscious of the sensitivities around food hygiene in China, the local PR team responded swiftly, sending food safety specialists to a couple of its restaurants chosen at random. The relatively good inspection results were then reported by both traditional and self media organisations.

As in any other market, companies must also be on the lookout for another main source of fake news - copycat social accounts. Manchester United, for example, has more than ten look-alike personal accounts, all featuring their current logo and credible account names. Posts from such accounts can look like the real deal to other users and used to spread misinformation.

Ultimately, we are never going to completely eradicate fake news in the digital age. It is up to policymakers, technology companies and brands to continue to work together to find ways of reducing its impact. In the meantime, the good news is there are already steps businesses operating in China can take to limit their exposure:

1. Register official Weibo and WeChat accounts and have them verified early on
2. Build an official Chinese website, and pick your domain names wisely
3. Know what issues are likely to be the most sensitive amongst your customer base and be responsive in the event of a crisis
4. Work closely with self media as well as traditional news organisations
5. Build and maintain a strong brand image, starting with having a proper Chinese name, so consumers know what to expect from you

Finally, engaging regularly with your existing and future customers has never been more important. If you can build up their trust in your brand, they will be more likely to believe that you are doing the right things. In the war against fake news that might be one of most effective weapons of all.

 

By Arnold Ma, CEO of Qumin


GDPR Summit Series is a global series of GDPR events which will help marketers to prepare to meet the requirements of the GDPR ahead of May 2018 and beyond. Further information and conference details are available at http://www.gdprsummit.london/


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