VANCOUVER—Corpses lie on the ground near hospitals. People kill their pets for fear the animals will spread disease. Mobs chase down people without masks and angrily force them to cover up.
These are the scenes flooding social media in China as the country grapples with the novel coronavirus that has prompted the World Health Organization to declare a global emergency.
But how much of what the Chinese people and international observers are seeing on social media is true?
Public mistrust of government authorities in China has reached such a severe level, observers say, that many Chinese people have turned to alternative online sources of information — often of questionable veracity.
“Many Chinese people are well aware of the government’s long track record of censoring information about threats to public health,” said Sarah Cook, director of the China Media Bulletin at human rights research group Freedom House.
“This fuels deep mistrust in official updates and undermines efforts to reduce fear and anxiety,” she told The Star.
There’s history to the earned mistrust. In the first few months of the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Chinese government tried to keep it a secret. By the time the new virus was publicly reported, five people had died and hundreds had already fallen ill. It was a health disaster that led to heaps of global backlash, and China sacked its health minister and the mayor of Beijing in apparent contrition about the mishandling.
While central government authorities in Beijing were much quicker to publicly report the new coronavirus, the local Wuhan city government initially censored the first reports of a new illness emerging in the city last December. Medical experts said in a research paper published in The Lancet that they’ve found new evidence that the origin of the outbreak may not have been a seafood market in Wuhan as the Chinese government reported, and the first human infections may have occurred in November.
Li Wang is among those glued to social media.
The economics researcher at the University of New Brunswick and former Canadian student is currently on lockdown in Wuhan after flying home to visit family during Lunar New Year.
To pass the time, he was one of millions of Chinese glued to their screens watching a livestream of a hospital being built in ten days to house patients that have overwhelmed Wuhan’s hospitals. The government says a crew of 7,000 worked around the clock to build the 1,000-bed hospital, and vowed to build another this week.
“Everyone is afraid to go outside … Almost everyone I have talked to online are panicked,” Wang said. Because he is not a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, he’s not able to board the chartered flight Canada is sending to bring back Canadians from the city.
China’s control of social media is a factor that adds to the confusion. Many people are familiar with mainland China’s “Great Firewall,” the internet censorship apparatus that automatically blocks international social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram as well as many news outlets and the entire suite of Google services.
Chinese authorities are continually developing and fine-tuning their ability to censor social media posts on domestic websites such as the Twitter-like Weibo blogging platform. They even have the ability to surveil and automatically block parts of private conservations on chat apps such as WeChat.
WeChat is the preferred platform for many in China during the coronavirus outbreak because the chat groups there tend to be small or medium-sized groups where some users know each other personally.
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“People are getting at least some information from individuals they personally know and trust (on WeChat typically), but that doesn’t make them insusceptible from the spread of false information,” said Cook.
“But for those who personally know the original source — say a relative who is a nurse in Wuhan — her information will likely appear very credible and believable to them and possibly rightly so.”
However, like all social media platforms, the quality of what a user sees depends on the quality of the people they have in their circles. A WeChat user who is friends with many doctors and nurses would likely get more reliable information.
Perhaps aware of the communication challenges government control over the scarce number of independent media outlets in China has seemed to lighten over the past several weeks.
As a result, members of the public in China are turning to respected Chinese publications like Caixin to read quality journalism about the outbreak. The magazine recently published a four-part series produced by dozens of journalists including a detailed account of the Wuhan government’s coverup of the crisis.
So are the images on social media real?
Yuri Qin, an editor at the Berkeley-based China Digital Times, a bilingual website that monitors the Chinese internet, says that unfortunately, some of the horrible videos and photographs might be real, although they are difficult to verify.
“Authorities in Wuhan have imposed some brutal measures to prevent the spread, and because of the panic some people are cruel to each other and sometimes they use extreme means to drive out or detain suspected carriers of the disease,” Qin told The Star in an email.
She says the loss of credibility of the local government has seemed to exacerbate paranoia and fear among citizens of Wuhan.
However, it’s also helpful to keep in mind that among the hundreds of millions of Chinese social media users, some have retained their sense of humour even during a health crisis. Some videos that have gone viral are jokes, and likely stem from people trying to make the best of their situations.
What are some reliable sources of English-language translations of Chinese social media posts on coronavirus?
The China Digital Times verifies and translates blog posts and diary entries from people living in China dealing with the coronavirus enforced quarantines and health checks.
The website What’s on Weibo tracks and analyses viral social media posts on China’s most popular platforms.
Bill Bishop’s Sinocism newsletter regularly compiles and comments on Chinese-language media sources on a variety of news topics.