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What the deepfake controversy about this Chinese actor says about conspiratorial thinking

Zhang Zhehan’s fans think his dog is an imposter. That says a lot about how we distort reality online.

Actors including Gong Jun and Zhang Zhehan attend a Word of Honor fan concert in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province of China, on May 4, 2021.
VCG/VCG via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

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

For instance, when a fan sees two beautiful, famous people working together, it may be natural to hope that they’re secretly in love. Sometimes these ships come true — the people who thought from their onscreen interactions, for example, that Robsten were dating, or Brangelina, eventually discovered they’d been right all along.

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

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

Conspiratorial thinking has come to characterize many conversations around tech, politics, and internet culture in general. But a conspiracy theory that can yoke itself to the intensity of fandom has an especially alarming capacity to turn toxic and dangerous. When I wrote in 2016 that fandom shipping “has increasingly taken on all the characteristics of a religious dogma,” I had no idea how much worse things would 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 forced to hide) were the exception rather than the rule; now, as the Zhang Zhehan fandom illustrates, not only are such fandom conspiracy theories more and more commonplace, but they’re marrying the intensity and fervor of fandom with modern social media and technological pitfalls.

Last year, Zhang starred in the hit Chinese drama series Word of Honor. The show, an adaptation of a queer danmei novel, was overtly homoerotic, following in the vein of 2019 hit The Untamed. The series was a Netflix hit and propelled Zhang and his costar Gong Jun to international stardom. Legions of fans began shipping the two actors, typical fan behavior that in Chinese culture is often encouraged heavily by marketing teams and often the actors themselves. After a designated promotional period for the show, however, the pairing typically gets “broken,” and fans expect them to go their separate ways.

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

Before either actor could fully move on from their Word of Honor roles, however, Zhang Zhehan found himself in the middle of a scandal involving his alleged visitation of a Japanese war memorial so controversial it got Justin Bieber permanently banned from performing in China. Within days, Zhang’s career appeared to be over.

Many of Zhang’s Chinese fans moved on, but his international fandom was left floundering. A large subset of these fans were people who still shipped Junzhe and believed gossip that the two actors were still in regular communication. Fans read into interviews and social media posts Gong Jun made, seeking evidence that he was sending support to the man they believed he loved.

Meanwhile, in early spring, Zhehan reportedly returned to posting under the pseudonym “Zhang Sanjian.” He made references to his new clothing brand but also began implying that Gong Jun’s marketing team was still capitalizing on the Junzhe ship to boost his career, when Zhang no longer had a career.

This development meant only one thing to international Junzhe shippers: The Zhang Sanjian account had to be fake.

Many shippers grew convinced Zhang Sanjian was an imposter created by Zhang’s former manager and a group of cohorts, including his therapist. Then a small group of Twitter fans crossed several huge ethical lines: They doxxed Zhang’s therapist and allegedly reported him to the Chinese government as anti-Chinese — an act that could have extremely dangerous consequences for him and his family. Though insistent Zhang had been the victim of an authoritarian government, they weaponized that same authoritarianism against a perceived enemy.

In April, Zhang resumed posting to Instagram. Instead of celebrating his return, however, these fans, by now completely convinced all his posts must be an impersonation, created increasingly elaborate theories about how that impersonation was being carried out. They reported Zhang’s real, actual Instagram account for impersonation. When Zhang got his account restored and continued posting content, elaborate deepfake theories emerged. In the process of insisting his videos had to be fake, they raked Zhang himself over the coals: He was too “robotic,” his “eye twitched,” he “lacked body movement,” he was “creepy.”

When Zhang posted a picture of his dog, the shippers decided the evil band of conspirators around him had replaced his dog with a different dog.

The most infuriating thing about the Zhang Zhehan conspiracy is how extraordinary it isn’t. Increasingly, fandom is awash with conspiracies like this one. In 2016, a huge subset of the Sherlock fandom was so incensed at the fact that the show didn’t put Watson and Sherlock together in a queer relationship (a ship theory the fans titled “the Johnlock conspiracy” with zero apparent self-awareness) that they decided there must be a different, entirely secret final episode of the show — a wild card that left them angry and upset when the totally anodyne show that premiered the week after the Sherlock finale turned out, in fact, not to be Sherlock.

In Star Wars fandom, the fictitious “J.J. Cut” from director J.J. Abrams doesn’t exist, and no evidence for its existence exists, but fans still created an entire ideology around it. At this very moment, the One Direction fandom is having a meltdown because Liam Payne just shaded Zayn Malik, much to the chagrin of “Ziam” shippers who’ve spent years building elaborate rabbit-hole arguments that the two were in a secret closeted relationship. And let’s not get started on the fan narratives and magical thinking around the Depp-Heard trial.

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 any conspiratorial belief — to the point that you are continually distorting reality. In this case, there’s no logical reason to believe Zhang Zhehan was lying when he asked shippers to move on and stop harassing his family and friends. Now, a fandom that spent months uniting to support him after a huge personal setback has now become fully committed to dehumanizing him — to insisting he literally isn’t real — all in the name of “supporting” a nonexistent relationship.

Watching all this go down, a friend of mine mused that perhaps this was the real dystopian impact of deepfakes — not that the deepfakes themselves would distort reality, but that their mere existence now allows people an excuse to distort reality all by themselves.

That seems instinctually true to me. This isn’t just happening in fandom; it’s happening across 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 paths to radicalizing good-hearted fans, conditioning them to see the world primarily as fantasy, as a high-stakes battle between good and evil. It doesn’t help that decades of internet culture have taught people to be deeply analytical but haven’t taught them how to think critically and rationally about what they’re doing.

I don’t know how to tell you your fave is not a deepfake. I don’t know how to tell you that when you’ve given up this much of yourself to a bottomless well of belief, it’s your responsibility — to yourself and to the world — to drag yourself out and move on.

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