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Fake news is everywhere. Even in places that were once legitimate.

Consider the decline and fall of the South China Morning Post.

Photo credit: rawpixel on Unsplash
  • The South China Morning Post is a respected paper with a long and noble history that has recently made more than a few missteps.
  • Critics of the paper allege that it has fallen into the hands of Beijing and is now little more than a propaganda outlet.
  • The use of a legitimate news source to peddle propaganda is nothing new, but it may be the shape of things to come.

We are awash in fake news. It just isn't from the places the people seemingly most concerned with the problem think its from. The problems of entire websites, papers, and televisions networks that spew easily falsified garbage into the world are well known.

More concerning, perhaps, are the cases when legitimate sources are brought down into the muck. It is all the more dangerous because a history of accurate and unbiased reporting can make a propaganda sheet seem like legitimate news. As a case study, consider the decline and fall of the South China Morning Post.

Propaganda from a trusted news source

The South China Morning Post is one of the oldest papers in Hong Kong. Recently, it was sold to the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, the owner of the Alibaba conglomerate who recently became a member of the Communist Party. This event raised more than a few eyebrows.

Since Alibaba's take over of the paper, some strange articles have made their way into it. Frequent BigThink readers might recall the news that China had invented a laser gun capable of burning clothing at a great distance despite the agreement of scientists that the weapon as described would violate the laws of physics. Another recent article explained how Chinese scientists have altered the atomic properties of copper to have similar properties to gold in a way that could leave you thinking they had pulled off acts of pure alchemy.

A bigger problem might be the recent political turn of the paper. Ever since its purchase by Alibaba the paper has been moving into the orbit of Beijing. In 2016 the newspaper printed an interview with the famed Chinese dissident Zhao Wei in which she recanted her past activism. Just how the paper got an interview with a person in detention was never explained, and the conversation looked suspiciously like the forced confessions that have become common under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

In 2017 the paper printed and then retracted a story critical of Xi Jinping and his connections to foreign investors, allegedly over issues of accuracy. Given that the retraction occurred only a week after Forbes made a similar retraction over businessmen in Hong Kong, many found the official story to be fishy.

After a second interview with a man detained in China, this time the kidnapped owner of a Hong Kong bookstore, which looked like a fake or scripted confession many international observers began to denounce the paper. Magnus Fiskesjö, a Cornell University professor, explained that in his view "the SCMP can no longer be trusted as an independent news organization."

His view is shared by many former employees of the newspaper who have left over the last few years in response to what they see as the paper being increasingly under the thumb of Beijing. Stephen Vines explained that he left the paper over minor issues but should have left after the second fake interview mentioned above. He described the SCMP as having played the role of a "useful idiot" in furthering Chinese propaganda.

Former reporter Paul Mooney also explained after his sacking by editor in chief Wang Xiangwei that the paper has taken a distinctly pro-Beijing turn with articles cut or assigned with an eye to China:

Talk to anyone on the China reporting team at the South China Morning Post and they'll tell you a story about how Wang has cut their stories, or asked them to do an uninteresting story that was favorable to China.

Is this an isolated case? 

Disturbingly, no. There are an increasing number of seemingly legitimate news sources in the world today that are little more than well-dressed propaganda machines. Russia Today is a global news service controlled by the Russian government that spews propaganda, conspiracy theories, and anti-Western editorials out of sleek looking newsrooms.

Al Jazeera, which is owned by Qatar, has also been accused of being state media. The news service is known for taking a distinctly pro-Qatar viewpoint in international news and has been accused of both anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism.

In the United States, we have Fox News, whose viewers, critics say, are less informed than those who don't watch any television news channel at all. The list of general inaccuracies, controversies, and rather obvious right-wing bias at that network is well known.

Again, such tactics are nothing new. The Soviets used independent journalists to push propaganda, often to great success. One such case was when they managed to get the New York Times to report that there was no famine in the Ukraine by manipulating their lone correspondent. What is new about it today is the creation or acquisition of entire enterprises to do the job one left to papers clearly owned by the state.

What do you call it when a formerly legitimate and unbiased paper of note begins to turn itself into a sleek-looking sheet that toes the party line? Is it still fake news if you can trust half of it? Is it a brilliant propaganda play? Or is it just good business? In any case, the world should brace itself for new waves of misinformation coming from sources that seem trustworthy.

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