China cracks down on misinformation as influencer’s fabricated story sparks outrage


14th April 2024 – (Hangzhou) Chinese authorities have imposed strict penalties on ThurmanMaoyibei, a popular internet influencer from Hangzhou, after she created a hoax involving a child’s lost homework in Paris. The fabricated story, which claimed the discovery of homework belonging to a fictitious first-grade student named Qin Lang, quickly went viral, leading to widespread public deception and a futile search for the non-existent child.

ThurmanMaoyibei, whose real name is Xu and boasts over 10 million followers, initially posted the misleading content on February 16 across several platforms, including Sina Weibo, WeChat, and Douyin. The narrative gained further traction when an accomplice, pretending to be Qin Lang’s uncle, engaged with the content online. By 19th February, Xu escalated the deception by alleging she had made contact with Qin Lang’s mother.

Authorities swiftly launched an investigation, revealing that Xu, together with her colleague Xue, had orchestrated the entire scenario, including purchasing homework books online to lend credibility to their story. The police in Hangzhou confirmed that no students matching Qin Lang’s profile had travelled abroad, exposing the ruse.

In response, the Hangzhou public security department handed down administrative penalties to Xu, Xue, and their associated company. This action highlights China’s intensified efforts, led by the Cyberspace Administration of China, to regulate “self-media” activities. New guidelines issued in July 2023 mandate that all content featuring fictional or dramatized plots must be explicitly labelled to prevent misinformation.

The fallout from this incident has been profound, with Xu issuing an apology and expressing remorse for her actions, which she attributed to a lack of legal awareness. The story has not only led to a surge in public engagement, with over 290 million views on Weibo, but also sparked a broader debate about the ethical responsibilities of internet influencers and the platforms that host them.

Legal expert Zhu Wei emphasised the need for platforms to remove any gains achieved through deceptive practices, highlighting the role of social media companies in managing content and preventing the spread of false information.