Chinese internet users consume kompromat falsely accusing detained Hong Kong man of being with sex worker in China
The same image had appeared on the Internet back in July 2018.
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A photo alleging the detained Hong Kong man Simon Cheng was with a sex worker in China has been making its rounds on Chinese social media Weibo and Twitter.
However, a fact check done by AFP has revealed that the claim is false.
It was discovered that the alleged “kompromat” was not even accurate.
“Kompromat”, meaning “compromising material” in Russian, is a term popularised over the last few years as a result of long-running investigations into U.S. President Donald Trump’s ties with Russia, given that there was the likelihood of less-than-savoury information about the leader being unearthed.
Compromising information is damaging to any politician, businessperson, or other public figure, as it can be used to create negative publicity, as well as for blackmail and extortion.
Such information, even when false, is often nowadays left to linger online to create doubt about the target’s reputation, with little that can be done to erase the fake information’s existence.
Background: Detained for “soliciting prostitutes”
Cheng, a 28-year-old trade and investment officer at the British Consulate General in Hong Kong, was detained in Shenzhen, China, on Aug. 8 when he was returning home from a one-day business trip.
He was eventually released and has returned home safely after more than two weeks of detention in China.
Previously, Chinese state media Global Times reported that Cheng had been detained for 15 days in Shenzhen for “soliciting prostitutes”.
The allegation was dismissed as untrue by Cheng’s family who characterised it as a “joke”.
Photo claims Cheng was with prostitute in China
Global Times was not the only channel propagating the allegation against Cheng.
A photo that claims it shows Cheng with a sex worker in China subsequently spread like wildfire on Chinese social media.
It was included in posts such as the following tweet:
The description that accompanied the tweet, written in simplified Chinese, roughly translates in part to:
“A staffer at the British Consulate General in Hong Kong lost contact a few days ago. Western media then boldly attacked China, saying that family members did not know (what happened), and requested for his release and an explanation as to what happened… China, having no other choice, could only report the case in detail. Turns out Cheng was caught after visiting a sex worker. As he was afraid of losing face, he asked that his family members and workplace not be informed, because it was too shameful.”
The photo shows a bespectacled Asian man squatting on the floor together with a long-haired woman who was wearing a revealing low cut top.
They were both pointing at what appears to be a condom wrapper in a trash can.
The man’s face was censored, but he sported a similar-looking hairstyle as Cheng, and had black-rimmed, squarish glasses too.
— pengfeiyang (@pengfeiyang6) August 22, 2019
But the claim on the image is a false one.
According to AFP Fact Check, long before Cheng was detained in August this year, the photo had already appeared on the Internet.
For instance, the photo was included in this article on people who were caught soliciting sex workers in China.
It was published by Hong Kong online media PTT101 back in July 2018.
The photo also appeared on Hong Kong’s Reddit-like platform LIHKG back in August 2018.
The title of the post read: “Member Agger was jailed for 15 days when he visited a sex worker.”
In addition, the photo appeared in this YouTube video about the need for legislation on privacy in China.
The misuse of the photo has not gone unnoticed by sleuthing, eagle-eyed netizens.
“It’s not him (Cheng) in the second picture.”
Internet users in China are largely cut off from foreign publications and social media platforms.
As a result, fact-checking initiatives done by media or sites outside of China might have a difficult time filtering past the Great Firewall of China, and might even have limited reach on Chinese social media platforms as these avenues are assidiously curated.
This allows misleading information to fester and shape public opinion with little recourse for other information of a more accurate nature to be made available.
Top image adapted via Silk Road Economic Development Research Center & Weibo