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Outraged by the Outbreak: Social Media, Citizen Journalism and Coronavirus Censorship
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For Lunar New Year, Athena and I flew out of Beijing for a long-planned vacation to Malaysia. Despite spending a few days at a resort eating from the same open buffet as fifteen Wuhan natives (who were conspicuously spurned by the other Chinese guests), we’re no worse for the wear. We cancelled our flight back to Beijing and thanks to a $100 AirAsia flight are currently in southern Japan, where, unlike Malaysia, you can still find masks in drug stores.
Apologies for the delay in coverage. It was a pretty chaotic week and I didn’t have a computer until two days ago. What follows is a transcript of my recent podcast episode with Tony Lin of Quartz on the role of social media in the outbreak.
”I've never seen people online in recent years can directly attack and criticize a Party Secretary of a province that's in the past five, seven years. It's basically impossible to do so.”
Jordan: So Tony, let's start with the first rumblings that there was an issue within the medical community in Wuhan.
Tony: In the end of December 2019, there were rumors about a mysterious pneumonia or a new kind of SARS. And at that time, eight people were briefly detained and reprimanded. So on the social network, were was lots of gossip about this pneumonia, which is fascinating. And after a while in the early January, everything became so much more serious, especially at a time when we started to see other neighboring countries spotting outbreaks. The joke at the time was this was a very patriotic virus, only targeting foreigners and people in Wuhan.
Jordan: Why was the government's initial reaction to punish these doctors and deny that there was an issue in the first place?
Tony: We need to go back to look at these particular incidents. This disease is very similar to other events, public events or disturbances in China. For example, the African swine fever or a few years back when Beijing was trying to kick out all those low end population. But this particular public health crisis, there are three aspects that are very, very different. First, this is very time sensitive, so you can't really just drag it along and and hope that people will forget about it, like they did with the earthquake or baby formula situation. Second, is this is a public health crisis. It essentially affects everybody, not just one small group of people. So you can't really use certain kind of narratives to alienate the group and pick fights between people.
A very easy trick is to paint certain kinds of people who are advocating human rights as bribed by foreign forces and stuff like that. But this time everybody is affected. So you can't really say all these people, the entire country has been bought by America.
Jordan: The national debt's too big.
Tony: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And the third part is, this is a public health crisis and if you hide information, if your censor everybody who's sick, this harms those trying to actually address the crisis. So if you just block all the information, it's actually very, very hard for them to address this issue. So, all three things together, it gives the whole discussion a very, very brief window of media reporting and public discussion.
Jordan: So that final week in January, it was really something like I've never experienced on Chinese social media. So maybe first off before we get into some of the stories themselves, what was it like for you to sort of be part of this incredible stream of news and the whole country turning to one issue and sort of discourse being freer than it ever has been in a number of years now?
Tony: First of all, I have been covering other stories and a lot of the times I source on Weibo and other Chinese social media and I couldn't do anything because nobody's talking about anything else. My entire timeline is washed by the discussion on this epidemic. So, well I think only Kobe Bryant's death had about one day of discussion and went away very, very quickly.
The scale and the depth and the directness is also astounding. I've never seen people online in recent years can directly attack and criticize a party secretary of a province. In the past five, seven years, it's basically impossible to do so. But somehow all of a sudden people can find a space to do that.
What I saw two days ago was a five minute video of Hubei's party secretary answering CCTV reporters two questions. The Hubei party secretary basically gave a five minute no answer reciting a pre-prepared text. That's all normal. That happened before and that's expected. What's unexpected is that people can actually take that five-minute video and post online and directly say, "This answer sucks and they're not doing their jobs." That Weibo was reposted 30,000 times, which equals tens of millions of views. Even 10, 15 years ago, that's very, very rare and normally these kind of information would be deleted over a matter of seconds if not hours.
Jordan: Do you want to guess what the dynamics are that have allowed this space to be created to talk about these sorts of issues?
Tony: There are different dynamics play into it. One is that the central government had definitely signaled to media that they are allowed to do a certain amount of in-depth reporting including Global Times and CCTV. They even get to criticize what's going down there locally on the Wuhan government and Hubei government. CCTV, I think there are several segments directly challenge what is going on out there and what I've been told anonymously from on the ground reporters basically, there had been a brief left of censorship. The other part that might also play into it is that it's during Chinese New Year break, so a lot of censors are not at work right now, so actually yesterday was the very first day-
Jordan: They're stuck at home too.
Tony: Yeah, they're stuck at home too. Yesterday was the first day of people going back to work and you can see immediately there've been large scale deletions and yeah, I myself was briefly blocked on Weibo for a little while.
Jordan: That's unbelievable. If that's actually one of the causes that's just too perfect. They got to pay these guys overtime. They've got to get them DingTalk or whatever. Get some remote access.
So the fact that an entire new generation has been able to see a moment where people have been very actively criticizing the government. Does this mean anything in the long run? Does this change anything?
Tony: I don't know. I have no idea, but it certainly gives me hope. One of the funniest moments on Weibo these days is that there is a fan girl who all of a sudden, he or she just came up with an idea basically saying that much like the reality TV show in China, like Produce 101, we should have a TV show called Produce Officials and people should and we can just live stream and see how these officials work and vote them off.
And then people retweeted and commented, "You are just reinventing the concept of democracy."
Which is awesome. It's definitely a re-enlightenment to the younger generation I'd say, but I don't know how long that's going to last because people have very short memories.
Jordan: That's a beautiful thing. I think Israel actually a while back they had like a, So You Want To Be a Diplomat of reality TV show to join their foreign ministry.
Democracy in China is probably not going to flower any time soon though I would certainly buy a Tencent video membership if it would get me early access to the ‘So You Want to be a Bureaucrat’ episodes.
That said, aside from the criticizing the government aspect, there's also been an entire week where the whole country has been just trying to find information about what is actually going on when it comes to the coronavirus.
A friend told me that this was sort of like a civics source. It's like a giant nationwide media literacy colloquium.
Do you see any potential fallout of people perhaps reading news in a more enlightened critical way after this experience of trying to understand what's going on with the coronavirus?
Oh, absolutely. I think one of my friends, very close friends, she posted that her parents used to be the most steadfast of Party supporters who supported constitutional amendment and all of that. But this time they lost a lot of trust to not just local but also the central government. I think partially because this thing actually directly effects their life and definitely the government on the local level and central level made a lot of miscalculations in terms of public perception and the epidemic, the outbreak itself.
Let's talk a little bit about the platforms themselves. How has discourse on Weibo changed over time?
I think there is a consensus on the platform: the outbreaks are bad and the government should have been more transparent and all of that and people are not happy with what's going on out there. But the discussion is much more nuanced and a lot of times it focuses on different aspects of this natural disaster. So, people are swinging between holding the government accountable and cheering up for people. But in the meantime, there are constant news events coming up and people are trying to expose corruptions and expose how horrible it is on the ground.
I don't think there is a unified discourse here. So that's another evidence showing that it's not that heavily censored. Usually when an event is heavily censored, there are certain kind of information contamination and there are people who are paid to make certain comments and drive the thing into some kind of a agenda, into a narrative. But this time I actually see a pretty diverse, more of a discussion that would happen in any civil society, I guess.
Doxxing Victims on Weibo for ‘Stability’
Tony: When the outbreak just started, the government was not very clear, not very transparent about the situation out there. And there are a lot of patients stranded at the hospital or they're being sent away from hospital and they're not exactly sure if they had this new disease or not. And by now we know the situation was a lot worse than what had been exposed. But during that time, it was basically a black box. At that time a lot of patients and patients' family members, they came forward and saying that, "My family had contracted pneumonia or this virus pneumonia, and we don't know what to do. We're being sent away. We want to hide ourselves. We want to be put in quarantine. What should I do?"
And some of these Weibo got a lot of attention. Most people are trying hold local government and the hospital accountable. But in the meantime, we do see a huge amount of people who might volunteered to basically censor or try to block or attack these people who are seeking help. They were saying, "You guys are liars or you guys started creating panic. You might not actually have this new disease, but why are you at the hospital wasting people's resources?"
And then the narrative evolved into a new one saying that these people are paid or they are Taiwan spies creating this panic as an attack on the government. This is very, very sad because later some of these patients and family members got verified and their family actually died from the disease without any diagnosis.
You want to tell the story of the three relatives?
Yeah, these are different cases. One case is that there are three women posting, sending out posts saying that, "My aunt is sick and she had this pneumonia." And then a lot of very, very big Weibo influencers are calling them out and saying that you guys are Taiwan spies. How come? And you guys just use one prepare text. So that's why you guys are all have an aunt dying. It turned out the three women are cousins. Of course, they have one dying on aunt.
It's the worst corner dark corner of the internet to me and the thing is all these people who attack these patients, they demand, they are doing it under the name of debunking rumors. You guys are spreading rumors. And they demand people to release their medical records, CT scans, all of these and some people, they actually complied. The attackers, they would just find a new angle to so call debunk the rumors.
And their motivation, it's partly like just for the lulz and also out of a pro party line?
I wouldn't say all of them are pro party. What I would say is it definitely comes out of a place of cognitive dissonance. In the beginning a lot of people, or still some people, they still don't think, refuse to believe the situation is as bad as people say and they are trying really hard to disprove what they've been told or what they have heard as if by calling out these rumors can actually make them feel better about their current situation. That's my guess.
Could you elaborate on the roles that the platforms are playing and being truth arbiters to these stories?
So one of the biggest problems in the earliest stage of the outbreak is that most people who are suspect of contracting this virus cannot get a solid diagnosis. And for the hospitals to actually admit these patients, they must give out diagnosis. So, without a diagnosis, all these people must be sent away and basically put themselves in self quarantine.
The main problem is you cannot get diagnosis at the hospital. But if you put this information online and seek help, you will be put down and attacked for seeking help without a diagnosis. So, more and more people came out with this issue and Weibo started to institutionalize a speedy verification system. Basically, just give patients a way to, give them a blue orange tick saying that, "Okay, I confirmed that you are an actual patient or a patient's family member." But the problem is the situation is much, much worse and not everybody has the online infrastructure or the resource to get themselves verified.
A lot of other people, they're reporting on other issues, much like what's going on with the local hospital or what's going on with the local Red Cross. But the problem is Weibo, by institutionalizing this verification system, have actually excluded a lot of people and made Weibo a platform to verify the gossip. The most urgent issue is to have more transparent information and let people to speak up. But this verification system doesn't necessarily help, it actually creates more barriers and give the trolls more ammunition to the normal people who are not verified.
So we've been talking a fair amount about Weibo. Do you want to talk a little bit about the dynamics of Wechat and Wechat articles?
Yeah, sure. I think yeah, first of all, the whole thing started with Wechat. Doctors discussed in their Wechat groups saying there is a new SARS like virus going on and people must watch out and these doctors are briefly detained and reprimanded and signed given a warning letter, which is not very legal. There is no due process on that, but it's a completely different issue. But Wechat has also been a huge source of information, both misinformation and the in-depth investigative journalism. So when it comes to Wechat, there is one genre of Wechat articles that really caught my eyes. So, these Wechat articles are the odes to the virus and to the outbreak. They are very emotional articles praising how great this outbreak is so that it can bring all the people together and be with the country and make the country stronger.
They turn a disaster into a celebration which is very, very disturbing. Even though this kind of article is not, it doesn't only occur in the Wechat, in the Wechat system, the more people share, the the more the actual monetary benefits the poster can get. So, [Tencent has an economic incentive to not] prevent people from posting these pretty disturbing pieces out there.
But there is another thing a lot of netizens they use Wechat as a citizen journalism source. One of the biggest Wechat events in early stage is that people found a Wechat article from Hubei performance groups saying that, "We just had this great Chinese lunar new year gala and our Hubei party secretary and the governor, they all attended this event."
People were furious about that because there's an outbreak yet here you have all these officials, they're out there attending this gala and this particular Wechat article even praised the performers saying how heroic they are.
Jordan: And I will say, in spite of the death of the vast majority of investigative journalism, there still are a handful of outlets that once they were able to write stuff, have written some pretty fantastic investigative pieces with on the ground reporting that do real coverage and every once in a while they only... Some of these articles they get 100,000 shares, which means 30 plus million people are reading this stuff and then it disappears within six hours. But the fact that there are still people out there writing this sort of stuff, I found it encouraging it at least.
Tony: Yeah, for sure. I was talking to Maria Repnikova the other day. She is writing a op ed and we both think, even though we don't know how long this stage will last. Actually, I think it ended yesterday, but this resurgence of civil society and people's participation in public events, this gives me some kind of hope.