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Opinions divided at China internet conference over issue of fake news stories

Senior figures working in China’s internet industry expressed mixed views at an industry summit after US social media companies were blamed for spreading unfiltered fake news stories which allegedly helped Donald Trump win the US presidential election.

Pony Ma Huateng, the chairman and chief executive of Tencent Holdings, said the controversy highlighted the need to seriously tackle the distribution of fake news online.

Ma was speaking at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province.

“Fake news spreading in US social media which played a part in Trump’s victory has sent an alarm to the international community,” Ma said. “Tencent has always been strict in cracking down on fake news and we see it as very necessary.”

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China exercises massive censorship on the internet and social media firms also have their own online censors who delete postings the Communist Party regards as sensitive or dangerous.

Tencent, with nearly 700 million active users on its social media app WeChat at the end of last year, has handled 17 million complaints so far this year after users reported rumours or spotted “illicit information”, said Ma.

“In the past two or three years, many children and seniors became our users. Sometimes they lack the acumen to discern true or false. Hence, we’ll do more to ensure security and social stability,” he said.

However, Wu Wenhui, the chief executive of China Reading Ltd, an online literature company, said regulators should not resort to extreme measures to tackle the problem unless it was absolutely necessary.

“The US incidents shows internet is more and more decentralised and people do not unanimously follow the opinions of experts,” Wu said.

“Regulators should respect the convenient platforms [of social media] for the public to express their opinions. They should also be open and be honest in communicating with the public,” he said.

The three-day state-run internet conference concluded with the release of a report on the development of the internet calling for the formulation of widely accepted global internet governance principles and standards.

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Xu Lin, the head of the government’s China Cyberspace Administration, also tried to dispel concerns about the country’s new cyberspace law at the forum.

Many foreign firms operating on the mainland says provisions including requirements to keep all data inside China and for firms to be subject to “security reviews” mean their intellectual property rights and sensitive commercial information will be put at risk.

Xu said the law was not aimed at discriminating at firms from other countries and was intended to improve online security.