By Peter W. Singer, Peter Wood, Alex Stone
Screen captures: Wuhan Public Security Weibo account details their investigation; “Flu in the U.S.” story on Weibo; CCTV13 News: “Most Deadly Flu in the USA in 40 Years.”
The authoritarian playbook — censor, distract, lie — is on full display.
In its battle to contain the coronavirus, the Chinese government has undertaken a wide range of measures, from shutting down cities to using drones to monitor and compel public compliance with public health edicts. But the regime is also waging a second battle: a campaign to control the world’s discussions of the first.
The weapons in this information war are Beijing’s massive media and online control mechanisms. Its three prevailing tactics—all too common across authoritarian regimes and wider online warfare— are censorship, diversion, and lying. China’s efforts show how an online battle for public security sometimes works in opposition to public health, and it reveals the priorities of an authoritarian regime.
When discussion of the outbreak began to appear online in late December, the Wuhan government moved quickly to suppress the news. Wuhan Public Security went so far as to investigate and detain eight doctors who posted on social media about the virus. Accused of spreading “illegal and false” information, the eight were made to sign a Jan. 3 letter saying that they had “severely disrupted social order.” State media followed this up with reminders from the police that it would pursue anyone else who spread false rumors.
One of the eight — 34-year-old Dr. Li Wenliang — contracted the virus shortly thereafter, was hospitalized, and died on Feb. 7. The subsequent reaction shows the challenges of this control tactic. A selfie of Li lying sick in his hospital bed went viral, stirring widespread outrage in China. “To get an idea of the enormous scale of said outpouring of grief and anger, Dr. Li’s death apparently generated 800 million(!) comments on Weibo by midnight,” wrote David Paulk of the independent news outlet Sixth Tone.
After the Chinese regime formally acknowledged the outbreak on Jan. 9, government and media outlets shifted to a new, yet familiar tack: diversion and “what-aboutism.” A key thread here was downplaying the significance of the outbreak in China by making comparisons to what other nations have faced. One example of a story that appears to have been promoted to muddy the waters focused on deaths in the United States from common flu. The day before the city-wide lockdown went into effect in Wuhan, Chinese state media began reporting that the 2019-20 flu season had already killed 6,600 people in the United States. This story quickly went viral, also being picked up by other news outlets such as Beijing News, Tencent News, and various public Wechat accounts.
Soon, related hashtags like “MostDeadlyFluin40YearBreaksOutinUSA” [original: #美国暴发40年来最致命流感#] and similar “FluBreaksOutinUSA”[美国爆发乙型流感#] began trending on Weibo, with 220 million and 471 million views as of Jan. 27. As the story grew on Chinese social media, it began to reach global audiences. The ironic result was that, just as Coronavirus was surging in China, many Chinese nationals living in the United States began to be worriedly asked by their friends and relatives back in China about the “dire” flu situation gripping North America.
While the number reported is true, the narrative being pushed (“American common flu pandemic!”) is false. The United States is indeed seeing a high number of doctor visits for “influenza-like illness,” as it is called by the federal Centers for Disease Control, which puts this season’s death toll at 10,000 to 25,000. Yet the 2017-18 flu season saw an estimated 61,000 deaths. Moreover, the CDC estimate of influenza-related deaths in the U.S. includes people who die from flu-related complications (“deaths that occur in people for whom influenza infection was likely a contributor to the cause of death, but not necessarily the primary cause of death”). On the other hand, China generally does not report similar cases as influenza deaths, as reported by Caixin in 2019. The result is that while China’s Ministry of Health [卫生部] listed 144 deaths from flu in 2018, the apples-to-apples number is far higher. A 2019 study in The Lancet: Public Health, a peer-reviewed international journal, estimated that China sees an annual average of 88,100 flu-related deaths.
The timing of the posts in China and the way the information was presented illustrates the intent behind the push of the American flu story. If this were not propaganda meant to highlight supposed problems in other countries, Beijing might have noted that Chinese citizens are equally vulnerable to the flu, and emphasized the importance of preventative measures to ward off both the flu and the novel coronavirus.
As the coronavirus spread further, passing 40,000 cases and 900 deaths in China (as of Sunday), users on Chinese social media have begun to push back against these official lines of effort. Some users have urged an end to discussions of flu in the U.S., so to not divert attention from the domestic situation, while others noted that the flu season and the coronavirus outbreak should not be compared in the same breath. The government has responded by trying to steer the brewing anger at the United States: for example, state media has insisted that U.S. officials “created chaos and spread fear” by withdrawing diplomatic staff from the region and restricting travelers.
The final track typically used to shape online discussion and thereby alter real-world beliefs and actions is to push false narratives. To counter anger about the initial slow response to the outbreak, the regime has insisted that the opposite was true, that the government reacted quickly, that hospital facilities were more than adequate. This tactic of inverting the truth is sometimes called gaslighting.
For example, one senior government official — Lijian Zhao, Deputy Director General of the Information Department, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs — pushed out a claim that a new hospital building at the epicenter of the outbreak had been constructed in just 16 hours.)
Zhao’s claims were then spread wider by regime outlets like People’s Daily, the largest newspaper in China, and Global Times, reaching into news and social media in the West. As media outlets outside China like Buzzfeed soon noticed, the photo was actually of an apartment building on the other side of the country.
In sum, the episode is a good illustration of how pandemics of health and information can both be shaped and get out of control. They also point to a looming new front. In early February, the UN’s World Health Organization and Google announced that they had teamed up to counter disinformation on the coronavirus outbreak. It will be interesting to watch how they handle transmissions from one of the world’s most powerful countries and economies.