Social media can be a force for good, but it also has a destructive side, which New Yorker staff writer Jiayang Fan recounted in an FCC interview Tuesday, detailing how she and her mother were branded as traitors in a social media campaign in China.
“Twitter, at its worst, has this unique opportunity to magnify opposition and flatten all complexity,” Fan said in the FCC Zoom event. The Chongqing-born writer has experienced firsthand the dark underbelly of social media, a subject she wrote about in her recent New Yorker cover story “How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda.” The moving essay recounted how publicizing her mother’s struggle with ALS in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic led to the dark social media campaign in which they both ended up being portrayed as traitors by Chinese nationalists.
Yet Fan, a journalistic celebrity with more than 62,000 followers on Twitter, noted that sometimes, “Twitter feels like a family of kind strangers. I’m grateful for the kindness of strangers on this website.”
“To this day, I have an ambivalent relationship to social media, which you wouldn’t be able to tell from my prolific tweeting,” she said. “At times, I think Twitter is the worst thing to have happened to journalism. At other times, I think it offers me a conduit to my readers and the ability to be a bit more three-dimensional.”
Fan said she did not initially intend to write her recent cover story as a personal essay, but it developed into one after she began receiving disturbing messages on Twitter. “I was struck by the specificity of their insults,” she said. “There is so much rage and fury on the other side of a computer.”
Despite being subjected to online abuse, Fan said the experience only served to spark her journalistic curiosity. “What injustices did they feel they had suffered to merit such vicious attacks on someone they’ve only read about on the Internet?” she said. “As a writer, you have a responsibility to probe into the impulses of what people do, even if it seems counterintuitive.”
Fan’s cover story in the Sept. 14 issue of the magazine, which went viral and has led to a book deal, is the latest highlight of her tenure at The New Yorker, where she started as a fact-checker when Evan Osnos’s articles on China for the magazine required a staffer with Chinese language skills. She explained that serendipity and luck were responsible for her rise at the storied publication.
“I was told that there would be no upward mobility,” Fan said.
She continues to have great respect for fact-checkers. “I feel incredibly lucky,” she added, noting the foundational role fact-checkers play in journalism. “They do heroic work. They’re so vital.”
In addition to her recent personal essay, Fan has written about the Hong Kong protests, Hong Kong activist and singer Denise Ho, and the National Security Law. “I’ve watched with alarm and not a little bit of grim, heart-in-throat expectations as the National Security Law came into effect,” she said. “I hate to say this, but I haven’t been terribly encouraged by the turn of events. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way.”
Asked if she would feel safe traveling to China given recent events, she said, “I really wish someone could answer that question for me. I miss going to China to report. In the short term, for various reasons, I won’t be going there.” Commenting on China’s role in the world, Fan said she felt that the ongoing pandemic had made things worse: “It’s distracted the world from China’s encroachment.”
As for U.S.-China relations and the Nov. 3 U.S. election, she noted that the Trump presidency, with its chaotic nature, has been a useful tool for Chinese leaders looking for real-life examples of the downsides of democracy. “Every time Trump does a faux pas, Xi and team at Zhongnanhai must feel some glee,” she commented.
Claiming that Biden would be a more predictable president, which has both pros and cons for the Chinese Communist Party, Fan added, “On the whole, I think Xi’s been grateful for the Trump presidency for the way it’s taken the U.S. down a peg – or 12.”
Watch the full interview: