In 2018, an article titled “Liangshan farm girl cries over 250,000 kilograms of unsold apples” appeared on popular news platform Toutiao. Photos showed an old man and a girl weeping in a shabby house. The article claimed that bad weather had prevented trucks from delivering their apples to market.
The article went viral, and before long businesses promoting Yanyuan apples, a local variety, were seeing 100,000 orders a day. Soon after, Yanyuan County announced the news story was fake, and the photo was copied from the internet.
Then in 2021, similar videos showing orchards of Huili variety pomegranates in Liangshan popped up on short video platforms Douyin (China’s TikTok) and Kwai. For example, one streamer surnamed Liu told Jiemian. com in November 2021 about an elderly farmer who pleaded with him to sell his rotting harvest of pomegranates, so he called on his followers to help out. Sensing something else was rotten, netizens and farmers in Liangshan alerted authorities. An investigation revealed that the video had been sourced from the internet and doctored, and there were no unsold piles of pomegranates in Liangshan.
Over the past two years, a number of internet celebrities have emerged from Liangshan, many of them touting well-crafted backstories dreamed up by MCNs. The products they hawk are mostly sourced from elsewhere in Sichuan and neighboring Yunnan Province, an investigation conducted by NewsChina revealed.
An employee from Liangshan’s market supervision bureau said such practices suppress market prices, damage the interests of local agricultural workers, and destroy Liangshan’s branding. “For example, some livestreamers sell Huili pomegranates at half the normal price, but they aren’t grown in Liangshan and the taste is not comparable, which affects the reputation of Huili pomegranates. This dumping also profoundly affects the local pomegranate businesses,” the source told NewsChina.
An industry insider who works at Qianxun Holdings, the MCN company behind online influencer Wei Ya, who has over 17 million followers on Taobao Live and over 9 million on Douyin, told NewsChina: “Top companies in the industry certainly won’t engage in false advertising because they don’t want to ruin their credibility and reputation.”
In 2016, Alibaba led the market by offering livestreaming services on their e-commerce platform Taobao, enabling vendors to generate orders during livestreaming sessions. The format was quick to pop up on other apps. Livestreaming services to support farmers took off the same year.
Major players such as Wei Ya and cosmetics influencer Li Jiaqi have also promoted agricultural products on their livestreams.
As short videos and livestreaming grew in China, platforms such as Douyin and Kwai promoted poverty alleviation projects more aggressively. An e-commerce industry insider who operates over 20 agricultural product promotion bases in Liangshan told NewsChina that Douyin, Kwai and other platforms drove online traffic to agricultural product livestreams as part of the country’s highly touted rural revitalization strategy.
According to data from Kwai, influencers hosted around 2,600 livestreams promoting agricultural products from impoverished areas in 2022, making it the third-most popular category of livestream content on the platform.
The source from Qianxun Holdings told NewsChina that legitimate produce vendors are certified, meet strict quality standards for size, granularity, sweetness and flavor, and have inventory and order fulfillment services.
On the contrary, false advertising in livestreams often occurs during one-off sales. After watching multiple livestreams of several Liangshan influencers, NewsChina found that many did not provide clear details for their products, in particular their origins.