Censorship and Disinformation to Blame for the Spread of COVID-19

By March 30, 2020 April 1st, 2020 Blog, Community News

By Sandra Ordonez, Director & Co-Founder, Internet Freedom Festival
Published: March 20, 2020

The following article summarizes information shared during the Internet Freedom Festival’s weekly community gathering that took place on March 19. It is not intended to be a holistic analysis of the COVID-19 situation, but rather highlighting knowledge from ongoing or recent research, and helping individuals understand the role censorship and disinformation has played in COVID-19. Please note that better English translations are being worked on for many of the articles and reports referenced below.

As the world struggles to fight the ravages of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we are now only beginning to have a fuller picture of how the Chinese government’s use of censorship and misinformation has hindered people’s ability to report, track and treat the disease. China has one of the most effective and surveillance systems in the world.

Early censorship lead to avoidable deaths

China Digital Times (CDT) published a startling piece detailing the initial days of COVID-19 transmission in Wuhan, including a personal account by the medical doctor and whistleblower who first identified the virus. The investigative piece (better english translation forthcoming) recounts how censorship catalyzed the spread of COVID-19 and eventually led to Wuhan’s closure.

If you don’t know of CTD, you should. They have been at the forefront at fighting the Chinese government’s censorship and misinformation campaigns for years, and publish news which are blocked, deleted or suppressed by the state’s advanced censorship system. However, they are not the only ones publishing accounts of this story. Stay tuned for more information as this gets picked up by the English media.

In summary, Wuhan medical staff that identified the virus and tried to warn the public, were disciplined by authorities. Moreover, the doctor that first identified the virus, Dr. Li Wenliang, was also approached by the hospital disciplinary committee. You can read her personal account here, though the article is currently only available in Chinese with an English version forthcoming. (As information is heavily censored in China, Matter.News is one of the few places where Chinese citizens can preserve these types of content.)

Why would government officials want to censor this information? The answer is neither simple nor logical. Censorship in itself is illogical; it is a tool used to serve the needs of the few, disguising itself as a tool for the well-being of the group. In this particular case, the Chinese government has been determined to present an image that everything is stable and under control. They were afraid that people, both inside and outside the country, would question their capacity and authority. The Chinese government wanted to maintain an appearance of competence and control, and COVID-19 challenged their image of effective technocrat and legitimacy.

Censorship around COVID-19 was so heavily enforced that when Dr. Li Wenliang died, for a period of time, the first line of China’s national anthem,“Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves” was banned on WeChat, a government controlled and popular social media site. A March 14 New York Times article reports that Beijing increased its crackdown on those dissenting over the handling of the pandemic, and a Chinese Tycoon who criticized the government’s response to the Coronavirus had vanished.

Early Censorship Tracking in China

Citizen Lab, a research center based at the University of Toronto, just published a report confirming that Chinese social platforms started COVID-19 censorship at an early stage of the outbreak, specifically one day after Dr. Li Wenliang tried to warn the public on December 31, 2019. In the report, they document how two platforms YY (a popular live streaming service) and WeChat (the most popular social platform in China) block keywords related to COVID-19.

In the report, Citizen Lab states that the censorship rules in place are broad and effectively block messages that include names for the virus and sources for information about it. For example you cannot send a message on WeChat that contains the keywords “美国疾控中心” (US Center for Disease Control) and “冠状病毒” (coronavirus).

This censorship, they argue, has the potential to restrict vital communication related to the disease information and prevention. The government’s reliance on information control and instances of downplaying the seriousness of the disease caused avoidable deaths and potentially delayed precious time for other countries to prepare for its eventual worldwide spread.

A Timeline of Misinformation in Taiwan

Censorship has not been the Chinese government’s only tool of information control — they have used misinformation both against Taiwanese citizens and to establish the narrative that they have been more effective than western powers at controlling the spread and impact of COVID-19. Through misinformation, the Chinese government has tried to shift citizen’s concerns and shape public opinion by stating that COVID-19 is less serious than the “USA Flu,” a term they actively use. Through misinformation campaigns, they promoted the idea that Western democratic countries are doing nothing to protect their people and are learning from and using China’s model against COVID-19.

The people of Taiwan consider its country independent, yet is afforded no recognition by the government of China. Claimed as the province of China, Taiwan is often the target of monitoring, misinformation, and disinformation campaigns by Beijing.

In the beginning of 202, when COVID-19 began appearing on Taiwense social media networks, researchers began analyzing the various misinformation strategies used by the Chinese government to spread erroneous information. In a preliminary study by Doublethink Lab that commenced during the ramp up to the January Taiwanese presidential election until now, researchers documented and discovered:

  • During the Taiwnese election on January 11, 2020, there had been no confirmed cases in Taiwan, COVID-19 was not yet a media “hot topic’’, and there was very little information about what was occurring in Wuhan. Yet, social media messages began to circulate suggesting that voting booths were infected. In reaction, the Taiwanese Department of Health had to clarify that there had been no confirmed cases in Taiwan to-date.
  • On January 16, 2020 messages on social media and websites began appearing stating the “USA Flu” is affecting millions of people and that thousands of people were dying. The “USA Flu” became so popular that on January 22 it became a top search topic on Weibo.
  • On January 21, Taiwan had its first confirmed case and public concern about the virus soared. During this time, social media posts began to appear emphasizing that the COVID-19 epidemic was less severe than the flu. These posts downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus and discounted the concerns. They also noted that mainland China only had six deaths related to COVID-19. Taiwanese researchers determined that this narrative was distributed by online marketing companies who enlisted the help of live streamers and influencers.
  • Two days later,on January 23, Wuhan closed the city and confirmed cases began to appear outside of China. While COVID-19 had just begun to appear on the global radar, in Taiwan people had already begun to panic.
  • Messages on social media began to appear discussing remedies and the source of the disease. Many messages emphasized that COVID-19 came from animal infections and/or people eating infected animals. The other was that COVID-19 was an artificially manufactured virus, or an outbreak transmitted as a biochemical weapon attack.
  • On January 30th, the World Health Organization held an emergency meeting, announcing that COVID-19 would be listed as “Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)”, and that immediate action was required. Flights to and from China began to be restricted and Chinese people living overseas were being recalled back to China. In Taiwan, panic buying began. On Facebook and Line groups, fake messages began to be disseminated emphasizing that the raw materials used to produce masks, toilet paper and diapers were the same and almost out of stock. In response, on February 7th, the Taiwanese Ministry of Economic Affairs clarified that the raw materials used for the production of masks were different from those of toilet papers and diapers, and were not in shortage.

Researchers in Taiwan will continue to track the misinformation campaigns in their country. A better translation of the report will be forthcoming.

What’s Next

While the model of the Chinese government’s detection and containment of the coronavirus may not be replicated elsewhere, the systems of misinformation and disinformation are already deeply rooted in many other countries. As world governments grapple with how to adequately respond and care for their own citizens during the COVID-10 pandemic, we are already seeing signs of overreaching surveillance in the name of disease monitoring, lack of transparency, censorship, and a further backsliding of rights around the world.

The IFF Team will continue to collect stories, experiences, research, and updates from our community as they grapple with COVID-19. Stay safe and healthy.