by Echo Xie
When film director James Cameron was on The Colbert Report last month talking about his so-called “new” film, he told a story, with all seriousness (despite the venue), that Chinese authorities decided to cut out the nude scenes from Titanic 3D because with all the vivid effects, they’re afraid some male viewers will reach out to the screen and distract others from enjoying the movie. He then added, “This is true, you can’t make this up. This was the official statement.”
Well, apparently, we can make this up.
The official statement Cameron is so deeply convinced of is actually a satirical joke posted by a Chinese college student. The student, now in his senior year, wrote an article explaining how his funny joke turned into the hottest rumor on the internet, fooled numerous foreign press agencies and eventually got the director of Titanic.
On April 8, the student posted that statement on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) mimicking the official tone and language of Chinese state censors (For more on Weibo, please see: “China’s Weibo Doesn’t Stack Up to Twitter in the Global Conversation.”). To avoid misunderstandings, he used a hashtag “#jiaxinwen”(the Chinese way of saying “fake news” or “monologue”) at the end of the post. Although he only got a couple hundreds of followers, more and more people began to repost this message through their accounts, first within Weibo and soon onto other sites. At some point the hashtag was left out. It was not until CBN, a financial news website with more than 180,000 followers reposted the news on its Weibo account, did the young man realize this may have gone too far. He sent a direct message to the editor of CBN explaining the story, so CBN apologized and deleted the post.
But that’s not the end of the story.
The next day, the fabricated news was quoted by two major news agencies in China, ifeng.com and xinmin.cn, and was referred to as the official response from China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) for censoring Titanic. Although the two websites soon found out the news was fake and dropped their articles, it had already been read by too many people and started to go viral online.
Then the news was picked up by the foreign press and began to appear on many newspapers and major websites including the Daily Mail, The Guardian, ABC News, The Huffington Post and others. (The Huffington Post was one of the few to run a correction.) The story on international websites often looks something like this:
In a statement, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television explained the reason for the censorship — and it wasn’t due to an aversion to nakedness. ‘Considering the vivid 3D effects, we fear that viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people’s viewing. We’ve decided to cut off the nudity scenes,’ the agency said.’
According to the young Chinese student, his little prank was inspired by The Onion, a newspaper and website offering satirical items that look like news for entertainment. The student was a huge fan of Titanic, and like many others, was furious to find out it got censored, and then decided to make fun of it.
In recent years, parody (we Chinese call it “e-gao”) has become a popular game online in China. People draw spoof pictures, write funny stories or even make sarcastic films to mock celebrities and complain about the government. Yet almost always, people can easily tell those works are nothing but harmless jokes.
But this time, people fell straight into this obviously absurd statement.
The question I really want to ask is not why people are so gullible. It is not even why our media can be so ignorant and irresponsible when reporting the news. What I’m most interested in is: why do we all genuinely believe it makes sense for SARFT to say something like that?
The joke is still on them.
(The photo is by Steve Jurvetson of Menlo Park, CA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)