It should have been a time of celebration, but the coronavirus turned my Chinese New Year holiday into one of suspicion and fear. Wild rumors spread quickly on WeChat and Weibo, promising solutions to keep people safe from the mysterious threat.
Sure, some fake news is easy to spot: I won’t be dropping sesame oil into my nostrils any time soon. But others aren’t so clear-cut, and this flood of misinformation is testing our ability to separate the real from the fake — and challenging platforms to stop it at the source.
“There’s a high amount of information saturation, with some causing a lot of panic,” said Zhu Wei, professor of communications law at the China University of Political Science and Law.
Rumors that might cause panic include alleged city lockdowns and patients escaping from hospitals. Some can be harmful to people’s health, like rumors that strong alcoholic drinks and smoking can prevent people from contracting the virus. Rumors about cats and dogs being able to spread the coronavirus have even reportedly led to people throwing their pets from tower blocks.
A more benign and widely believed rumor was that popular CCTV news anchor Bai Yansong was going to interview the renowned Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan. Zhong is a key figure who led China’s response to the 2003 Sars outbreak and was the first to publicly confirm that coronavirus can spread through human-to-human transmission.
The rumor was widespread enough to even reportedly fool some local TV channels. But Bai promptly told Chinese media that it’s not true.
“It shows that even when information spreads so fast and there is such vast amount of it, people’s hunger for information is still so strong,” wrote Fang Kecheng, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “People hoped Zhong Nanshan would speak again because they have many unanswered questions.”
But why is there so much misinformation?
“It’s a question that calls for reflection,” Zhu told us. “It’s because authoritative information is not timely enough, and as long as there’s secrecy regarding the release of information, other voices will surely come out.”
As a result, Chinese social media platforms have rolled out their own tools for combating fake news.
Microblogging platform Weibo, an important platform for people to publicly discuss news in China, regularly publishes and debunks popular rumors. It also started verifying accounts for some bloggers in Wuhan, the city where the virus first started to spread and that’s now under lockdown.
ByteDance’s news aggregator Toutiao also has a rumor-debunking section, and it appears that fact checking is all done in-house. A ByteDance spokesperson did not respond to a request for more information.
Tencent has in-house fact checkers, too, but it doesn’t solely rely on them. Jiaozhen, a team under Tencent News, works with professionals like doctors and medical professors for fact checking along with other organizations such as local police and news media, according to bylines on its rumor debunking articles.
These articles can be found in the WeChat mini program also named Jiaozhen, which means to take something seriously.
The mini program gathers popular topics regarding coronavirus developments and labels them true, questionable or false. News about Shuanghuanglian — a traditional Chinese remedy for cold and flu — being able to “inhibit” the coronavirus, for example, is labeled questionable. The rumor has drawn skepticism from many people, including medical professionals.
Tencent said that as of February 1, Jiaozhen had “provided rumor debunking services” more than 350 million times during the outbreak. But it’s not clear how many people in China regularly use Jiaozhen or other rumor debunking programs. And some researchers have pointed out cases when the Jiaozhen appeared inadequate.
CUHK’s Fang pointed out that Jiaozhen marked as fake a video allegedly showing a Wuhan hospital crowded with dead bodies on the ground, citing the Communist Youth League of China, which said that the video had been debunked. That doesn’t comply with professional fact-checking standards, Fang wrote. The post on Jiaozhen has since been deleted.
“It’s more like an aggregator of fact-checking information instead of a fact-checking organization,” Fang said in another article.
The Jiaozhen team declined our request for an interview, saying the timing isn’t appropriate.
Some experts think that there’s only so much that platforms can do. That’s the stance of Masato Kajimoto, a professor at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center who specializes in news literacy and misinformation ecosystems in Asia.
According to Kajimoto, misinformation during the coronavirus outbreak is more organic than targeted campaigns, making it different from political fake news produced by resourceful bad actors. There is little concerted effort to mislead the public or influence public opinion in this situation, so platforms can’t solve the problem, he said.
This is especially true in Hong Kong, he added, where rumors and unsubstantiated claims are exchanged on encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp.
“I think it’s ultimately the news audience and social media users who should be more discerning and take responsibility for the information they consume and share,” Kajimoto said.
And for many Chinese internet users, when it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s false, Zhu said they turn to one particular trusted voice in China: CCTV.
This article first appeared in Abacus News