Saturday, September 23, 2023

Zhang Zhehan is a deepfake: fandom conspiracy theories are getting worse

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

It’s easy to believe what you want to believe. The internet, from deepfake videos to social media connecting like-minded people, has made it so much easier.

For example, if a fan sees two beautiful, famous people working together, it can be natural to hope that they are secretly in love. Sometimes these ships hatch – the people who, for example, based on their interactions on the screen, thought that robsten were dating, or Brangelinaor Dan and Philoeventually found that they had been right all along.

But you want your ideas about a certain celebrity to be real and then you want them to be so real that you decide an actor is being held hostage, his social media has been taken over by a group of evil conspirators, and all his recent posts are deepfakes. Of his own.

That’s what is happening to an alarmingly high number of fans of the actor Zhang Zhehan, in what appears to be a growing conspiracy theory.

Conspiratorial thoughts have become a hallmark of many conversations about technology, politics, and internet culture in general. But a conspiracy theory that can unite with the intensity of fandom has a particularly alarming potential to become toxic and dangerous. When I wrote in 2016 that fandom shipping has “increasingly taken on all the hallmarks of religious dogma,” I had no idea how much worse it was going to get. At the time, fandom conspiracy theories such as Larry Stylinson (the belief that One Direction’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are in love but are forced to hide) were the exception rather than the rule; Now, as the Zhang Zhehan fandom illustrates, not only are such fandom conspiracy theories increasingly common, but they combine the intensity and fervor of fandom with modern social media and technological pitfalls.

Last year, Zhang starred in the popular Chinese drama series word of honor† The show, an adaptation of a queer danmei novel, was openly homoerotic, in line with the 2019 hit the untamed† The series was a Netflix hit and propelled Zhang and his co-star Gong Jun to international fame. Legions of fans started dispatch of the two actorstypical fan behavior common in Chinese culture encouraged heavily by marketing teams and often the actors themselves. However, after a certain promotional period for the show, the link is usually “broken”, and fans expect them to go their separate ways.

This studio-driven approach to dispatch is the reverse of American fandoms, where fans often create ships out of thin air, much to the dismay of studios who have no idea what to do with the monster they’ve created. It is not surprising that even after the promotional period for word of honor ended, international fans continued to send “Junzhe” – the ship name for Zhang Zhehan and Gong Jun.

Before either actor could fully continue with their… word of honor roles, however, Zhang Zhehan was in the middle a scandal regarding his alleged visit to a Japanese war memorial, so controversial it got Justin Bieber Permanently Banned of performance in China. Within days, Zhang’s career seemed over

Many Chinese fans of Zhang moved on, but his international fandom remained floundering† A large part of these fans were people who still shipped Junzhe and believed that the two actors still communicated regularly with each other. Fans read out interviews and social media posts that Gong Jun posted, seeking evidence that he was sending support to the man they thought loved him.

Meanwhile, in early spring, Zhehan Reportedly back to posting under the pseudonym”Zhang Sanjian† He referred to his new clothing brand but also started to suggest that Gong Jun’s marketing team still took advantage of Junzhe ship to boost his career, when Zhang ran out of career.

This development meant only one thing for the international Junzhe shippers: the Zhang Sanjian account had to fake

Many shippers became convinced that Zhang Sanjian was an impostor, created by Zhang’s former manager and a group of cohorts, including his therapist. Then a small group of Twitter fans crossed several major ethical boundaries: they numbed Zhang’s therapist and… reportedly reported him to the Chinese government as anti-Chinese – an act that could have happened extremely dangerous consequences for him and his family. Though Zhang had persistently been the victim of an authoritarian government, they weaponized that same authoritarianism against a perceived enemy.

In April, Zhang resume posting until Instagram† However, instead of celebrating his return, these fans, who by now were fully convinced that all his posts had to be an imitation, created increasingly elaborate theories about how that imitation was performed. She reported Zhang’s real Instagram account for imitation. When Zhang recovered his account and continued to post content, elaborate deepfake theories emerged† While insisting that his videos had to be fake, they slammed Zhang himself: he was too “robotic,” his “eye was shaking,” “he didn’t exercise,” he was “creepy.”

When Zhang posted a photo of his dog, the shippers decided that the evil gang of conspirators around him had replaced his dog with another dog.

The most annoying thing about the Zhang Zhehan conspiracy is how extraordinary it isn’t. Fandom is increasingly overrun with conspiracies like this one. In 2016, a huge subset of the Sherlock fandom was so outraged that the show didn’t put Watson and Sherlock in a queer relationship together (a ship theory fans titled “the Johnlock conspiracy‘ without apparent self-awareness) that they decided there had to be another, totally secret final episode of the show – a wildcard that left them angry and upset then the totally anodyne show that premiered the week after Sherlock final turned out not to be in fact Sherlock

In Star Wars fandom, director JJ Abrams’ fictional “JJ Cut” doesn’t exist, and there’s no evidence for its existence, but fans created an entire ideology around it anyway. Right now the One Direction fandom is on a meltdown because Liam Payne has Zayn Malik. put in the shademuch to the chagrin of “Ziam” shippers who have been building for years extended rabbit hole arguments that the two had a secret relationship. And let’s not get started on the fan stories and magical thinking around the Depp-Heard process.

Yes, of course people lie, and of course rare real-life conspiracies do occur; but at some point it becomes irrational and irresponsible to prioritize a fandom belief — or a conspiratorial belief — to the point that you’re constantly distorting reality. In this case, there is no logical reason to believe that Zhang Zhehan was lying when he asked shippers to move on and stop harassing his family and friends. Now a fandom that teamed up for months to support him after a massive personal setback is now fully committed to dehumanizing him — by insisting he’s literally not real — all in the name of “supporting” a non- existing relationship.

Watching all this happen, a friend of mine mused that maybe this was the real dystopian impact of deepfakes – not that the deepfakes themselves would distort reality, but that their mere existence now gives people an excuse to experience reality all by themselves. to distort.

That seems instinctively true to me. This doesn’t just happen in fandom; it happens on the internet. While conspiracy theories like QAnon get all the attention, it’s conspiracy theories like Johnlock and Zhang Zhehan that keep me up at night because they are pathways to radicalization good hearted fans, thereby conditioned them to see the world primarily as fantasy, as a battle between good and evil with much at stake. It doesn’t help that decades of internet culture have taught people to be deeply analytical, but they haven’t learned how to think critically and rationally about what they’re doing.

I don’t know how to tell you that your favorite isn’t deepfake. I don’t know how to tell you that when you’ve given up so much of yourself for a bottomless well of faith, it’s your responsibility—to yourself and to the world—to drag yourself out and move on.

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