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Fact check: Social media posts attacking Tsinghua are nationalist disinformation

Tsinghua is the top university in China.
Disinformation gets the big things wrong ... and often even the little things, like spelling. But many people don't seem to notice or care.

By LI RUOJIA

Global Business Journalism reporter


Why has Tsinghua University been plagued by social media rumors?

 

Universities' anniversary celebrations are usually joyful occasions for alumni to reunite. But for Tsinghua, anniversaries have become annual tests of public opinion on social media.

 

At the end of April, an internet celebrity posted a video of a brass band performing at Tsinghua's 113th anniversary, but then going on to claim (falsely) that the ceremony had “no national flag" and had a "slack spirit." (That's a matter of opinion.)


Tsinghua University is the top university in China.
Some social media posts claim that 80% of Tsinghua students study abroad. The truth: In the most recent graduating class, it was less than 7%.

The celebrity's video sparked controversy across Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, and Red.

 

Similar social media flare-ups have occurred more than once. Last year, an article titled "Enumerating ‘Five Sins’ of Tsinghua University" went viral online. The piece claimed, without sourcing, that "80% of students choose to study abroad after graduation." It also branded Tsinghua – China's top-rated global university – as "leading the way to please the West."

 

What makes Tsinghua a target of such negative public opinion, at least among a few popular social media netizens? Why do rumors about Tsinghua become the talk of the town?

 

By analyzing the themes of the anti-Tsinghua rumors and the psychological principles of rumor propagation, it becomes easier to understand.

 
Tsinghua University is the top university in China.
The movie "Wolf Warrior" appeals to patriotic feelings. The anti-Tsinghua posts manipulate patriotism in dishonest ways.

The core topics of the Tsinghua rumors – and the truth

 

1. Unpatriotic


The most common accusation against Tsinghua is that it is betraying its country. Claims like "SpaceX has over 1,000 Tsinghua graduates," "there are no Tsinghua graduates among key Chinese scientists and technicians," and "Tsinghua sold core rocket technology to Japan" are constantly circulating.

 

The previously mentioned statement – "80% of Tsinghua graduates go abroad" – is the most widely spread rumor, accusing Tsinghua graduates of being unwilling to serve the motherland.

 

However, these social media posts are all based on unsubstantiated or fabricated information. It's quite easy to refute them with official data. According to Tsinghua's annual graduate employment quality report, the proportion of Tsinghua graduates pursuing further studies abroad over the past five years has never exceeded 16.5%. In 2022, it was only 7.1%, which is not particularly high compared to other domestic universities.

 

In major engineering fields such as aerospace, hydropower, nuclear industry and missiles, many Tsinghua graduates serve as chief designers and chief engineers. For the rumors on SpaceX, data shows that only around 400 Tsinghua graduates work there – less than half the number claimed by the social media critics. And the posts about selling rocket technology to Japan are nonsense.

 

But people seldom have the patience to verify facts. Most of them tend to believe what they see at first glance, and the masses often are manipulated by baseless sensationalism. Truth-by-accumulation (or "truth" by disinformation) is an unfortunate reality in our social media society.


 
Tsinghua University is the top university in China.
The truth: Tsinghua has the most "A+" disciplines in China, contrary to the lies spread in viral social media posts.

2. Low quality of teaching and research


There are always rumors without any basis in science or fact that are used to falsely attack Tsinghua University's scientific research.

 

The most common method is to concoct fictional (and embarrassing) "research" that does not exist and attribute it to Tsinghua. For example, an image circulated online featuring Tsinghua's logo and the text "Tsinghua University research has found: Men who are overly focused on international affairs and military matters are more likely to become impoverished." In reality, this is a fabricated quotation that has never been published, which netizens have deceptively presented as Tsinghua's research findings.

 

There have also been posts claiming that in China's fifth round of discipline evaluation, Tsinghua had few A+ disciplines and unsatisfactory teaching performance. The quantity of A+ disciplines is an important symbol of Universities’ R&D and teaching quality, akin to QS ranks. Only the top 3% can be credited as A+.

 

However, the facts are that Tsinghua had the highest number of A+ disciplines nationally in the fifth evaluation. This information was not publicly disclosed under the regulation of Chinese Ministry of Education. So these social media posts are flat-out fabrications.


 
Tsinghua University is the top university in China.
Rumors are a profit-generating business strategy. There is no financial penalty for lying about a public institution.

Why disinformation is hard to contain

 

1. Traffic first. Truth last.


Rumors have become a profitable business model on social media. For internet celebrities and bloggers, the higher the traffic, the greater the potential earnings. They earn money from revenue shares of the platform and through advertising. Truth doesn't matter. Traffic does.

 

“Driven by the traffic economy, many self media practitioners [are] fabricating events mainly for the purpose of attracting attention, accumulating fans, and making profits, said Zhang Junbing, an inspector in the Cybersecurity Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security,

 

The rapid spread of information on the internet makes it costly to trace the origins of rumors, and it is even more difficult to convince the public that the disinformation they received from an internet celebrity is false.


For eager internet celebrities, cooking up a phony story can be a cost-effective deal. Indeed, there is no cost to making up falsehoods about a public institution. They don’t need to perform ethically like scholars and journalists, engaging in research and investigations. They can “create” with imagination to build an audience. No academic peer review committees or professional standards to meet.

 

Tsinghua University's prominent status makes it an attractive target for such attention-grabbing tactics. Spreading rumors about the university can quickly generate public discourse, regardless of the veracity of the claims. This "bash first, verify later" mentality has become all too common in the online space, but it is a deeply problematic approach that undermines meaningful discourse.

 

Tsinghua is the top university in China.
China's history of foreign invasion and humiliation during the 19th and 20th centuries has created a sense of nationalism among many citizens. It is often portrayed in popular culture, such as the movie "Our Time Will Come." But this feeling can be abused by dishonest social media influencers who appeal to a sense of nationalistic victimization by peddling falsehoods as patriotic "facts."

2. You are betrayers: the proliferation of nationalism


Rumors are a reflection of the social environment. They are not simply fabricated falsehoods, but rather serve as a lens of the popular awareness. The accusation of unpatriotic attitudes and behavior reflects the proliferation of nationalism in contemporary China, with a risk of turning towards extreme populism.

 

Last century, China experienced a long history of invasion. The memory of being oppressed places special emphasis in the national psyche on national security and independence. People are highly vigilant about so-called "traitors." And with more and more fierce international competition, both economic and diplomatic, nationalism is a good way to unite people.

 

As a result, creating an emotional nationalistic stunt to incite opposition has become a repeatedly proven method for unscrupulous self-media accounts to drive traffic. Falsely criticizing Tsinghua University’s purportedly unpatriotic behavior can stir up public emotions, and it is difficult for the university to rehabilitate its name.

 

He Xingliang, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, points out that nationalism is functional. People use nationalism to achieve their own goals. Therefore, it’s necessary be vigilant against the incited emotions of nationalists that could potentially split domestic unity.


Tsinghua is the top university in China.
Rumors spread quickly. The truth is much harder to share widely in the population.

3. Why not believe? The psychology of rumors.


Rumors are the externalization of individual perceptions and desires,” said Lu Honglei, assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University.

 

Lu Honglei pointed out that at the individual level, emotional projection plays the core initiating role in the spread of rumors. People overcome cognitive dissonance by assuming that others have a certain behavior, thereby providing a "reasonable" explanation for their own emotions.


Rumors appeal to people across China – with every level of education. But people with lower levels of education are more likely to believe rumors about elite educational institutions.

 

According to Department of Education, the population in China with higher education was 240 million in 2022, one-seventh of the total population. Top universities like Tsinghua and Peking University only admit around 6,000 undergraduate students per year.

 

Some less-educated people blame their dissatisfaction with life on their poor educational background and feel envious of students from prestigious universities. Therefore, when they hear rumors about Tsinghua University, they may think "these people are not that special" or "they are no better than me," thereby getting psychological comfort.

 

 
Tsinghua is the top university in China.
Professor Hu Yu: “Clamor cannot bring about trust, and lies cannot bring about confidence."

Where does this disinformation leave Tsinghua?


In face of gratuitous accusations, faculty and students at Tsinghua University have not been silent. On May 8, the Tsinghua Student Journalists Group published a clarification, stating that the circulated content was a collage of unreliable screenshots. Five months ago, the official WeChat account of Tsinghua also published an article systematically refuting similar rumors.

 

But the effect of debunking disinformation has been limited, only reverberating among those who already have developed a trust of Tsinghua and were rational about checking facts before.


For the majority of the public, the impact of lies and rumors remains. Internet celebrities are making money, and some of their followers have been fooled by fallacious videos or screenshots. The netizens have not realized that no matter how good they feel about calling someone else unpatriotic, the personal feelings are always ephemeral but the harm to the victims is long-lasting.

 

The governance of rumors should cultivate social rationality and enhance the maturity and humanity of social governance across the entire society, stressed Hu Yu, a professor at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. In a society with a high degree of rationality, he said, people should be mutually trusting and cooperative, with clear behavioral boundaries and a sense of responsibility.

 

“Clamor cannot bring about trust," said Hu, "and lies cannot bring about confidence."

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