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Is Bob Dylan really boycotting his Nobel Prize? Chinese readers left confused by news satire

A satirical Chinese article has caused confusion among its readers after it claimed that US folk singer Bob Dylan had rejected his Nobel Prize in Literature to protest against Europeans “sitting in judgment” of American music.

The article, written by Shanghai-based reporter Wei Ye, has been viewed more than 100,000 times on Chinese instant messaging app WeChat in just four days, after it was taken for real news.

With many readers taking it for truth, the article has sparked debate on whether it is appropriate to publish such satire on Chinese social media.

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The Nobel literature gong to Bob Dylan? You can’t be serious

Wei runs an “onion news” column in Chinese news portal Jiemian.com. The term “onion news” is derived from the name of American satiricial news firm The Onion.

His fictional article cited a made-up quote by Dylan saying he would invite celebrities to join his global boycott of the annual awards bestowed by Swedish and Norwegian institutions.

The Nobel prizes were aimed at “paving the way for European culture to invade US markets and thus make the United States a cultural colony of Europe”, according to a made-up quote by Dylan in the satirical piece.

The article first appeared on an official Jiemian.com WeChat channel called the “Abnormal Incidents Study Centre” on October 14. It was quickly shared widely on other WeChat channels after people mistook it for real news, The Beijing News reported.

This was despite the channel specifying that its articles were satire.

“Lots of WeChat channels have taken my ‘onion news’ about Bob Dylan as real after it was published,” Wei told the South China Morning Post on Monday.

“One channel, called ‘The Universe and The Future’, posted it without identifying it as news satire and many people ended up believing and sharing the article.”

The article posted by “The Universe and The Future” was later blocked by WeChat on the basis that it gave “no solid evidence to prove the authenticity of this news and thus the action violated the regulations banning WeChat channels from spreading rumours”.

Is Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature a joke or an inspired choice?

In truth, Dylan – who was on October 13 announced as the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature – has yet to acknowledge that he has won the award.

He has also not indicated whether he will turn up to receive the prize in person at a ceremony on December 10.

The Nobel Prize Committee – which commended Dylan for having “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” – had so far failed to contact him and had given up trying to do so, according to Sara Danius, the committee’s permanent secretary.

Danius told a Swedish state radio station on Monday that she was not worried about Dylan’s lack of response and was certain he would show up for the event.

Speaking to the Post on Monday, Wei said his satirical article was clearly identified as “onion news” on the website and WeChat channel.

“I think the incident (of people mistaking it for real news) was understandable,” Wei said.

“We have fertile ground for both producing and accepting fake news in China, and people are easily confused over plots in films and fiction, even when they’ve been told it’s all fake.”

News satire is often based on true incidents, but with fake details and information added to express the author’s opinions.

Such satire has gained a following in China in recent years, but readers sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between real news and satire.

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David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, said Chinese censors took humour very seriously.

“It’s quite difficult to predict what measures the authority might take on news satire as no one really knows where the red line is,” Bandurski said.

“But it will be interesting to see if people in China can make use of this limited space to produce something meaningful.”

In 2012, the state-run People’s Daily fell for a report by The Onion, which said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been named the “Sexiest Man Alive”. The Chinese newspaper ran a photo spread of Kim on its website.

Wei said he was not worried about the potential risks of writing satire “as we’ve told readers repeatedly that this is not real news but news commentary, with obvious exaggerated plots in our stories that readers can easily identify”.

He added that many fiction writers had complained actual news was “taking their jobs” as things that happened in real life were often “more absurd than fiction”.