Chinese social media struggle to contain rumors

As the Covid-19 epidemic that has killed over 1,500 people spreads across China, so do rumors.

Ever since officials confirmed human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus late last month, rumors about it have appeared on China’s media and gained circulation. They include bogus suggestions that smoking or drinking alcohol can help to kill the virus, some medicines could cure the illness, or cats and dogs can be infected by the virus, which leads to massive abandonment of pets in some cities.

These rumors are spread via online groups on WeChat or posted by bloggers on Weibo or as videos on Douyin, as well as other online platforms.

While the central government has called for “full transparency” about the epidemic that has sicked 72,528 and killed 1,870 as of Tuesday, online platforms have been struggling to balance between containing rumors and giving the public the right to know.

Online platforms such as microblogging site Weibo, instant messaging app WeChat, and short video app Douyin have stepped up efforts to contain misinformation and fake news. But there is also growing concern that they may have silenced people who tried to spread the truth.

Getting the facts straight

Some online platforms, such as Dingxiang Doctor, a popular health information exchange app, have been trying to set the facts straight as rumors become rampant.

Dingxiang Doctor has published over 100 articles fact-checking statements related to the outbreak.

One article examined claims that taking antibiotics can prevent people from being infected by the virus. Dingxiang Doctor deemed it to be false and said that the medications are designed to destroy or slow down the growth of bacteria and that it has no therapeutic effect on Covid-19 infections.

The app also publishes numbers of confirmed cases, the death toll, and their trends on a daily basis. The database and the column have been viewed more than 2 billion times as of Tuesday.

To refute rumors circulating on the app, WeChat has launched a mini program that collects that clarifies false statements. The mini program cites sources from professional institutes such as the China Academy of Sciences and official agencies such as cyber police departments in different cities.

Weibo has been using a feature since 2012 to label unconfirmed information on the platform. Questionable posts will be marked below it by labels such as “controversial” or “false.” The social media site said (in Chinese) on Feb. 10 that it had labeled 6,123 untrue posts related to the Covid-19 outbreak.

By comparison, the platform marked only 1,811 posts in 2018, according to its disclosure documents (in Chinese).

Accounts banned

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s internet content watchdog, said in a notice (in Chinese) published on Feb. 5 that it had ordered short video app Pipi Gaoxiao pulled from app stores because it had published videos that “spread panic” related to the outbreak. The department didn’t say whether the removal is permanent or temporary, but in previous cases, removed apps have been able to return to the app store after completing “rectification” plans.

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The CAC said it had also launched a campaign to directly supervise companies including Weibo, WeChat parent Tencent, and Douyin owner Bytedance.

WeChat, the most popular social media app in China, said on Jan. 25 that it would suspend or permanently ban (in Chinese) accounts that spread rumors about the epidemic.

Douyin, which has 400 million daily active users, said in late January that it had removed (in Chinese) some 24,922 videos from the platform that spread fake information on the disease outbreak and that the app had deleted or suspended accounts that posted those videos.

The true ‘rumors’

However, the content affected goes beyond rumors about home remedies.

Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who died earlier this month because of the virus, warned fellow medics on Dec. 30 about the spread of a “SARS-like disease” in Wuhan, when local authorities were trying to downplay the seriousness of the disease.

Four days later he was summoned to the local police station where he was told to sign a letter, admitting that he had “posted false remarks” online and that they had “severely disturbed the social order.”

Li’s death sparked outrage on China’s internet, with many users believing that local officials’ efforts to cover up the public health crisis in the initial stage had let the best opportunity to halt the spread of the disease slip.

Politically incorrect information is often deleted under the rubric of “rumor,” said Jo O’Reilly, a data privacy expert at digital privacy advocacy ProPrivacy.

A report suggesting a higher death toll published by Caijing Magazine on WeChat’s Official Accounts Platform, a blog-like feature, was deleted within one day after publication.

The story, which amassed more than 100,000 views on the platform before it was taken down, claimed that some people in Wuhan died after showing symptoms of Covid-19 but were not included in the official death toll because they passed away before their infection of the virus was finally confirmed.

WeChat said on the webpage that hosted the article that it had “violated the Management Regulations on Online Public Accounts,” a rule issued by the CAC in 2017 that demands bloggers regulate their content. The app, however, didn’t give details about which clause of the rule the article had violated.

“There definitely appears to be a concerted effort underway to restrict the spread of genuine information for the purposes of deterring panic,” said O’Reilly.

However, panic is not gone. It is unclear whether the authorities have achieved its goals of containing rumors despite all the efforts. Both plausible and preposterous rumors are still circulating widely, in a sign that people are still skeptical about the government’s commitment to transparency.

On a Weibo post of a state media article that warns people spreading rumors may have their accounts banned, one user commented: “If the rumors were finally proven true, can we seek compensation from the state?”

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