BEIJING — The video shows a nondescript office on the outskirts of Beijing. But what takes place is not typical office behaviour: A line of female employees waits to approach a male boss, who stands, hands behind his back, as each woman kisses him on the lips.
The images, and the narrative of a boss who requires his female employees to kiss him each morning as part of “morale building,” drew widespread attention in China because it seemed to confirm perceptions of working conditions and gender relations. According to reports that swept the internet, the boss said he had borrowed the practice from corporate culture in the United States — raising similarities with recent news reports about a certain presidential candidate.
Yet it turns out that what millions of people thought they saw last week — christened the “kiss the boss” scandal — was false, according to several employees at the company where the practice supposedly took place.
“It’s fake news,” said a woman working at the company, Jin Han Sen, or Hansens, which is based in Tongzhou, on the outskirts of Beijing, and makes brewing equipment.
“Look, yourself,” she said, gesturing around her. “Our office doesn’t look anything like the office in the video.”
The woman, who declined to give her name, added that the company did not need to explain what was patently false.
Another employee of the company laughed when asked about the video during a reporter’s unannounced visit, pointing out that no one there was wearing the black-and-white uniforms seen in the clip, that the man in the video did not look like the boss at Hansens and that the employees appeared to be passing something from mouth to mouth rather than kissing, with the final person dropping the object.
It is true that the Hansens office does not look like the one in the video. It is larger, with a fish pond snaking across its wooden floor and a bar in the center.
What the video does reveal, though, is how this tech-savvy country, where 688 million people have internet access, is grappling with a digitally driven “post-truth” environment, just as other nations are.
But complicating the situation in China is an underlying “pre-truth,” the result of state censorship that manipulates and directs reporting.
“The truth is always premade in China rather than uncovered through the reporting of facts,” Mr David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, said in an interview.
One result is that fact and fiction are at times hardly distinguishable online, reflected in annual lists of the country’s biggest “fake news” stories.
One such story last year involved a document, said to be from the State Council, China’s Cabinet, setting limits on the amount a man could pay his bride’s family when marrying. (The “limit” was reported to be 30,000 renminbi (S$6,198); the “fine” for exceeding it 60,000 renminbi.) Officials from the Ministry of Public Security declared the story false.
Disinformation does not go entirely unchecked. Chinese can face administrative or criminal penalties for spreading fake news reports, though human rights advocates say the rules are also used to silence dissent.
The “kiss the boss” story began life as a short video on Tencent on Aug 3, with the title “A company team-building scene: Female workers line up with the boss.” The next day, the female workers were said to be lining up to “kiss the boss.” By October, when the report spread quickly online, it had become “female workers line up to kiss the boss every day.”
One commenter wrote on Weibo that he would like to work at the company.
“Most of all,” he said, “I’d like to be that boss.”
“This boss is too evil,” another commenter said on Weibo. “What are those women doing, staying there?”
Some questioned why so many online comments made light of sexual harassment in the workplace. One woman said she had once been “forcibly kissed by a boss.”
It is unclear who introduced changes to the narrative, but a report on WeChat by SaveMedia, a media tracking site, blamed editors for not confirming what they publish.
“Female workers lining up to kiss the boss? False! Media editors lining up to jump into a ditch is the truth here,” the headline on the article read.
State-run media such as China National Radio picked up the “kiss the boss” story. People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, wrote about it on Twitter.
“Normally, if something’s been posted by other mainstream media, we don’t do fact-checking because we assume they’ve already done that,” said a man who answered the phone at China National Radio, when asked how the station vets news reports.
The man declined to give his name.
“You could argue that ordinary people don’t have the responsibility to check the truth,” said Mr Wei Xing, an editor at Pear Video, a content provider startup in Shanghai.
“But the media, especially traditional media, do have that responsibility,” said Mr Wei, who formerly worked for the news website The Paper. “They should make it an everyday habit.”
“In Chinese media now, there are lots of problems with online information * for example, not verifying sources,” he continued. “The media is pursuing clicks and high-impact stories too much. It all leads to the spread of fake news.”