The Ban that Never Was: Peppa Pig, AI and Porkie Pies

The Ban that Never Was: Peppa Pig, AI and Porkie Pies
AP / TPG
What you need to know

AI-inspired Peppa content pushed an online publishing platform into deep water in China, but the headlines missed a deeper argument over whether the state can or should rule on what media people consume.

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“Peppa Pig is banned in China” was the headline around the world last week and haters had a field day. Poor kids! What a terrible place it must be to banish such a cute and inoffensive cartoon animal, they snorted.

The problem with the story is that it was a “porkie pie” – or lie.

Just so you know, Peppa is alive and kicking in the Celestial Empire. She has been a star on China Central Television since 2015 and there are even plans to build Peppa Pig theme parks in Beijing and Shanghai.

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Reuters / TPG
People dressed as characters from 'Peppa Pig' take part in a parade during the China International Cartoon and Animation Festival in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, April 29, 2018.

Chauvinist, headline writing fans of the pig could have easily accessed the China-based browser Baidu and typed in “Peppa” to see if she really was banned. But they clearly didn’t want the facts to get in the way of a “good story.”

Shame. The real story is so much more interesting. It began quite innocently, with China’s State Administration of Radio and Television (SARFT) announcing in March that original video programs should not be re-edited. This is daft, of course, and China’s netizens responded in kind by making a mockery of the new rules.

They picked up on Peppa and produced “subversive” video mashups of the entirely wholesome pig, bought counterfeit merchandise or sported stick-on tattoos to make a mockery of the regulations. Peppa became a symbol of counterculture thinking, which was unexpected but kind of cool.

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Sina Weibo
The British cartoon pig has been remixed in a number of subversive ways.

Meanwhile, the Beijing-based company ByteDance has been growing at an incredible pace with its nimble apps on mobile platforms. Founded in 2012 by Zhang Yiming, it was recently dubbed “one of the World's 50 Most Innovative Companies for 2018 and one of the Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in China” by the American business magazine Fast Company.

To generate content, the company uses intelligent machines to analyze texts, images and videos, then applies deep learning algorithms to automatically serve up popular and individualized news stories, jokes and funny videos. Its portfolio of platforms includes Xigua Video, Toutiao, musical.ly, Vigo Video and News Republic.

Results from the first quarter show that its social media application, Douyin, was downloaded more than 45 million times and was the world’s most downloaded iOS app – followed by heavyweights like YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook’s Messenger app and Instagram.

Also known as Tik Tok outside China, the Douyin app enables users to create and share short videos by lip-syncing, dancing or creating vignettes to the music of their choice. My kids got into it for a couple of weeks and it seemed like innocent fun.

The problem with machine-inspired content in China is that it supplies demand, rather than following Chinese Communist Party (CCP) thinking. It’s great at giving people what they want and making money for its owners, but not so good at providing what the CCP thinks is best for its people.

Given the success of ByteDance and the popularity of its content, the CCP decided enough was enough and made it abundantly clear that the Party would decide what people should read, not smart machines, or the desires of readers.

In April, SARFT told ByteDance to withdraw its Neihan Duanzi app for jokes and silly videos because it was causing “strong dislike among internet users,” followed by the company’s news aggregator Jinri Toutiao and video clip app Huoshan. ByteDance was basically told to clean up or shut up.

To my mind, this is not so different from Twitch banning streamers so that it can grow in international markets with different values; Facebook’s founder explaining the internet to Congress so it can continue to pump out fake stories that generate engagement and ad revenue; or YouTube periodically purging content because of some new outrage.

If these tech companies don’t act, they face being squashed. Even worse, for stakeholders, the revenue stream dries up. So worried was ByteDance founder and chair Zhang Yiming that he confessed to not being able to sleep at night because the company’s content “did not accord with core socialist values” and this was giving him a “bad conscience.”

It’s a good bet that the threat to his company and personal net worth of US$4 billion kept him awake too. Either way, he acted immediately and reportedly upped the number of moderators (or “censors,” depending on your bias) from 6,000 to 10,000. Caught up in the subsequent orgy of self-purging was the innocent Peppa, thrown out with the bath water.

She survived, but so concerned was the executive editor-in-chief of SARFT’s Review magazine about headlines coming from the West, he had to reassure the world by saying, “Peppa Pig as a cartoon does not have any problem in its content. The values, family values and emotions it conveys are all positive.”

Putting AI in charge of news content is an ongoing revolution. Automated or robot journalism is already a thing. ByteDance’s Xiaomingbot, for example, is an AI bot that writes news articles. It published 30-40 articles a day during the 15-day Rio Olympics in 2016, all arriving well before deadline, just two minutes after a sports event finished.

In the so-called “post-truth era” of politics and social media, the bot in the machine is part of the triumph of opinion over fact. Propaganda, advertising, public relations, fake news websites, Facebook’s self-reinforcing algorithms for opinion and news, junk news, disinformation … it’s a worsening problem in whatever country you’re in.

It’s a moot point, worthy of discussion surely, how much of an influence the government should have on regulating the media environment, especially when its AI fueled and has accelerated out of human control.

As the sage pig Peppa once put it: “In the world, there are two kinds of balloons. Up balloons and down balloons.” I interpret this to mean there are two ways of looking at governance. Top-down, or bottom-up. Telling people what they should think; or letting them find out for themselves.

For the record, I think that if you treat people like kids, they will act like them, which helps explain why the innocuous Peppa became a symbol of counterculture “delinquents,” or shehuiren (社會人), in China.

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Weibo

What a rebel: A video on Sina Weibo purports to show a man with a Peppa Pig tattoo.

The alternative is to treat people like adults. Fake news will eventually create disbelief (“fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”). Even if it creates problems in the short term, the hope is experience will enable the individual to eventually make an informed choice and sort fact from fiction.

The problem is when headlines and news content are geared toward pulling in readers and generating clickbait for the sake of ad revenue. Or people stop thinking and just consume. In such a world, the lie will surely win.

Read next: Adore Pork? You Will Love Taiwan

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston