BEIJING // How did a spoof article about North Korea's dictator being the sexiest man alive end up as a real news item in China? Turns out it was a case of telephone, or Chinese whispers, in the digital age.
Hong Kong media picked up the piece on Kim Jong-un by US satirical website The Onion a week ago while explaining to readers in Chinese that it was a farce. But from there, it jumped over the Great Firewall and landed into the official, irony-free Chinese media.
When Hong Kong's Phoenix TV website, ifeng.com, ran its story on its fashion channel on November 21, the story's second paragraph clearly stated: "The Onion is a satirical news organisation."
But, when state-run Yangtse.com picked up the Phoenix piece a few hours later, it had morphed into straight news. The piece never mentioned that the original was a joke, instead plucking comical reader comments attached to the Phoenix story and running those.
"A man with so much fat on the face, and the double chin, and the excessively white skin. And they call him the sexiest. They do deserve the name Onion. I can't help but shed sad tears."
The editor cited for the story, Yang Fang, could not immediately be reached - and two employees who answered the phone at the Nanjing media outlet said yesterday they weren't even sure if Yang still worked there.
Five days after the Yangste piece, Beijing's Guangming Daily website took the story for a spin, cutting it back and citing Yangtse.com as its source. The Guangming piece was still live yesterday and the story's editor said she had not realised it was a joke until she was interviewed.
The story next made it to the flagship paper of the Communist Party, the People's Daily, on Tuesday along with a significant upgrade: a 55-photo slide show of Mr Kim. An editor at the People's Daily website who refused to give his name said the story was picked up from the Guangming Daily site, running on three channels in Chinese and English.
Upon realising it was a spoof, the People's Daily decided to take down their versions yesterday. But not before The Onion updated their original piece with a link to the People's Daily and a shout-out: "For more coverage on The Onion's Sexiest Man Alive 2012, Kim Jong-un, please visit our friends at the People's Daily in China, a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion, Inc."
"Exemplary reportage, comrades," The Onion wrote.