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Chinese social media giant opens up on 'fake news' and charges of stifling dissent

Facebook might be able to learn a thing or two about fighting "fake news" from Chinese social media giant Sina.

The company's CEO, Charles Chao, spoke with CNBC this week about his battle against the spread of inaccurate information, and sought to dash allegations that his platform is really acting to stifle political dissent.

"Whatever you heard recently, like what Facebook started to do, and all these social problems, [people became aware] that they need to vet information: All these, we have been doing this for many years actually," Chao said.

Chao explained that his site began marking posts deemed to be "fake news, fake information" at least five years ago. That process includes volunteers on Sina's platforms and relationships with local news outlets to help verify whether posts are accurate, he said.

Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has found himself defending his website's evolving policy against fake information. Earlier this month, he addressed claims that his company profits from such posts, calling them "crap."

"We are also victims of this and we do not want it on our service," Zuckerberg said at the time. "We don't want any of it."

Asked why his company began explicitly addressing post veracity years ahead of its American peers, Chao attributed it to U.S. tech firms' undue faith in the free market of ideas.

China's Weibo CEO Charles Chao.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
China's Weibo CEO Charles Chao.

"I think the views of U.S. counterparts, I mean, they don't believe that you should actually manage social platforms because users can manage the social platforms themselves — the fake news can be corrected by the system," he said. "But in China, I think we have more experience in dealing with the issues, and I think we are also more aware that this could be a problem if we don't deal with that."

In China, he said, "you have a lot of people" who "dare to say a lot of things online without taking responsibility." Chao attributed that phenomenon in part to China not having "mature" legal standards on libel at the time social media first began — so companies like his had to step in.

"I mean, it's not a government legal system, but it's really a system we built, a platform to deal with the issues," he said.

But many charge that there's political intent behind these non-governmental systems, with activists claiming that this is a methodology for stifling dissent.

It's well established that China engages in internet censorship, and most outside analysts point to social media as one of the prime battlegrounds for that fight.

Chao, however, emphasized that he did not believe Sina's actions were in service to political goals.

"Well, this is quite a misunderstanding because a lot of rumors have nothing to do with political issues or any government-related issues," he said of those who charged his vetting system was meant to silence dissent.

He offered an example: "In the early days, a lot of people wanted to attract so-called followers on their accounts. They tend to publish a lot of fake information or exaggerate a lot of things to attract eyeballs to make them more influential. Actually, a lot of times they are probably [posting] a lot of fake information content. So you have to deal with these people because they just spread rumors just for their own sake — sometimes without any social responsibilities."

China, he said, appeared to suffer that problem "more so" than other countries, "and so we have to deal with that issue."