China’s ‘Queen of Self-media,’Mimeng, is under consecutive attack after publishing a story that has been labeled as‘a fake story.’ The scandal has triggered discussions on the status quo of We Media(自媒体) on the Chinese internet. It was one of the most-discussed topics on Weibo and WeChat right before the Chinese New Year.

Who or what is ‘Mimeng’? First and foremost, Mimeng is an online social media account with enormous traffic and popularity: 13 million followers on WeChat, 2.6 million followers on Weibo. The person behind the Mimeng blogging account is Ma Ling (马凌), a Chinese female author and Literature graduate who was born in 1976.

The Rise of The Self-media Queen

Over the past few years, ‘Mimeng’ has grown into a so-called ‘We Media’ or ‘self media’ platform, which means private, independent, online publishing accounts that get their content across through blogs, podcasts, and other online channels. Mimeng is now more than Ma Ling herself but an entire professional editor and copywriter team behind it. The We Media tycoon has been controversial for years because of its click-bait titles and controversial stances on various issues. The topics most addressed in Mimeng’s publications are relationships between men and women, love, marriage, quarreling, and extramarital affairs. Previous articles published by Mimeng include titles such as ‘This Is Why You Are Poor,’ ‘Jealously Means Progress,’ ‘I Love Money, It’s True,’ and ‘Men Don’t Cheat for Sex’,etc .

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Apart from its content, there are also other reasons why Mimeng has triggered controversy in the past. The fact that it charges a staggering amount of money to advertisers, for example, is also something that previously became a topic of discussion – Mimeng allegedly charges some 750,000 yuan ($113,000) for a post mention.

The Death of a Top Scorer from a Poor Family

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As mentioned above, Mimeng is hit by the biggest controversy thus far. The media group is under attack after publishing a story that turned out to be fabricated. The story was published on a WeChat account called Talented Limited Youth (‘才华有限青年’), which is registered under the same legal entity as Mimeng.

The author, according to Sixth Tone, is a former intern of Ma Ling called Yang Yueduo. The publication in question is a long story titled “The Death of a Top Scorer from a Poor Family” (“一个出身寒门的状元之死”) which allegedly portrayed the short life of the author’s old classmate: a young, brilliant mind, born in an impoverished family in Sichuan Province. In the story, the protagonist did all he could to create a better life for him and his family — studied hard, got the best university entrance score of his city, and successfully graduated from university. But despite his efforts to start a life in the big city, he failed to succeed and tragically died of cancer at the young age of 24.

Shortly after publication, the moving and tragic story went viral on social media. However, several details made online readers doubt the story’s authenticity. It did not take long before readers proved that several aspects of the story were indeed untrue. In light of the fake news allegations, Talented Limited Youth quickly deleted the story from WeChat. They also issued a statement defending the story’s authenticity, explaining that for privacy reasons, various details of the story were altered. According to Beijing News, Talented Limited Youth was then banned from posting on WeChat for 60 days.

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In response to the allegations, Mimeng offered its “sincerest apologies” on Weibo on February 1st, saying: “The Mimeng Group has decided to completely withdraw from Weibo and take a two-month break from WeChat.

Fake Story Triggers Official Media and Public Anger

The post by the Jiangsu Bureau itself then also blew up on Weibo, with the hashtag ‘Jiangsu Internet Police calls out Mimeng’ (#江苏网警点名咪蒙#) soon gaining over 210 million views. In the comment sections,  people criticize Mimeng for ‘deceiving readers,’ ‘promoting negative values’ and ’yellow journalism.’

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A netizen wrote: ‘These self-regulated media only care about making money, they have no sense of social responsibility.’ The Mimeng case has led to discussions in Chinese media on the status of ‘we media’ or ‘self-media’ platforms and their influence. People’s Daily responded to the Mimeng scandal with a post on February 1st titled ‘Self-media Cannot Become a Spiritual Pyramid Scheme’ (“自媒体不能搞成精神传销”), which argued that unless self-media accounts such as Mimeng actually work on establishing ‘healthy social values,’ their apologies are only a way to temporarily dodge negative public attention.

In late January, Chongqing Internet authorities launched an investigation into 48 ‘self-media’ accounts, suspending another two for spreading fake news.

A clearer description is given by Week in China, writing that ‘Self-media typically operate as social media accounts run by individuals or as small firms established by a handful of former journalists.’ What makes it different from any other social media account, is that in we-media the blogging has been professionalized and that the authors can make a living from it. It is a trend that has become especially visible in China’s online environment since 2012-2014.

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This highly commercial side of ‘we media’ matters. If a publisher, such as Mimeng, charges advertisers exorbitant amounts of money, they also have to maintain a certain number of readers. They don’t just post as a hobby, instead, it is serious business. In a highly competitive online media environment, where hundreds of media outlets are fighting over the clicks of China’s online population of over 800 million people, yellow journalism have almost become somewhat of a necessity for some of these publishers, with some even resorting to publishing ‘fake news’ to get the attention and the clicks.

China’s Newsweek Magazine (《新闻周刊》) calls the situation at hand a ‘self-media chaos’ (自媒体乱象) that poses an unprecedented challenge for governing society in the mobile internet era. They call for as strong online censorship as traditional media in China.

But other people deem that readers themselves should pick what they read instead of authorities regulating it for them: ‘The important thing is that every reader must have the independence to judge for themselves, just let the fake news and yellow journalism [naturally] lose their market.’ The Mimeng scandal shows that for social media accounts with a large following, one misstep can lead to terrible consequences.

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Very similar to Mimeng’s statement, China’s short-video KOL Papi also issued an apology at the time, saying she supported the requirement for correction, and that she would attempt to convey ‘positive energy’ (正能量) in the future. ‘As a media personality,’ she said, ‘I will watch my words and my image.’ Papi’s CEO also expressed the company’s willingness to produce ‘healthier contents.’

At the time, her videos were temporarily taken offline. Meanwhile, some people think that the fact that Mimeng will stay silent for the coming two months is not necessarily a bad thing for the publisher: ‘They can take an extra-long Spring Festival holiday.’

Mimeng Executed

As people thought Mimeng might get a second chance to rise again as a healthier online content provider, the comprehensive boycott finally landed. Ifeng.com recently announced the shutdown of Mimeng’s accounts on the platforms as a result of “taking its responsibilities as the content regulator to crack down on fake information, pessimistic values, cheating for clicks and behavior that purposely splits society.” 

Toutiao issued a similar announcement, closing five of Mimeng accounts. 

(Edited from GlobalTimes.cn, Gabi Verberg and Manya Koetse, What’sonWeibo.com, New York Times, ifeng.com)

Edited by Joreal Qian