Yuan Longping in 1962. Image available at Wikimedia Commons under public domain.
When writing an obituary there is one question above all others that must be factually established: Has the subject in fact died? It is a basic rule of thumb that CGTN, China’s international English-language cable TV news service, and many other state media outlets, fumbled badly today as they issued premature reports of the death of the celebrated agronomist Yuan Longping (袁隆平), known for his development of high-yield rice varieties.
Yuan, 90, in fact did pass away at around 1PM Beijing time, but this was many hours after CGTN reported through its official Weibo account that the scientist had died in Changsha at the age of 91. Later this morning, after the CGTN report set off a wave of copycat coverage, Yuan’s personal secretary confirmed that he had been unwell, but said he remained in the hospital for treatment.
Within several hours, CGTN had removed the original story, seen below with its 404 error and remaining search result on Google, and the network had issued a public apology.
The fake news traveled rapidly this morning, picked up by numerous official news outlets and other channels. Below is a screenshot of a report from Phoenix News, citing as a source a subsidiary publication of the state-run China Central Television (CCTV), China Television News (中国电视报).
The China Television News tribute struck an emotional tone, emphasizing love and dedication to the country:
An old man with the heart of a child, and with a childhood dream. His love for this land was profound, and he was a faithful watcher of the rice fields!
🕯 We offer our tribute, in memory!
Sites across the Chinese internet pounced on the fake news, and even for a time the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia included a date of death for Yuan’s entry, while the English-language Wikipedia continued to list the scientist as alive.
Shortly after the news began spreading like wildfire, Eastday, the national news portal based in Shanghai, reported, citing Hunan’s provincial propaganda department, that the news of Yuan’s death was in fact fake news. The simple message in the header read: “[Propaganda Department of the Hunan Provincial Committee: #YuanLongpingPassingIsFakeNews#] (湖南省委宣传部: #袁隆平去世为假信息#).
This story about fake news disseminated through state media outlets about a celebrated figure in China’s agricultural development for a time became the real story. Here is that story through Southern Metropolis Daily, shared via Sohu.com.
The source for the Southern Metropolis Daily story was the official People’s Daily, citing once again Hunan’s propaganda department. The authorities, clearly were working overtime to reverse an embarrassing case of state-driven fake news.