China’s crackdown on coronavirus news shows the danger of state control of media

While people in America continue to whine about Facebook as a doomsday machine that is likely to kill us all with fake news, the other end of the media-centered threat to humanity has been on full display this year in China. Today the NY Times published a piece looking at China’s early crackdown on coronavirus related news using documents from the Cyberspace Administration of China. The CAC runs all of China’s media, including social media, as if it were one big outlet designed to praise the Communist Party. Through a combination of crackdowns on dissident voices and heavy promotion of the proper pro-state narrative using paid commenters, the CAC helps the party manage its image both internally and externally.

“China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times. “It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale.”

“This is a huge thing,” he added. “No other country has that.”

In early February, the word went out from Xi Jinping to control digital media not only to prevent panic but to “actively influence international opinion.”

Agency workers began receiving links to virus-related articles that they were to promote on local news aggregators and social media. Directives specified which links should be featured on news sites’ home screens, how many hours they should remain online and even which headlines should appear in boldface.

Online reports should play up the heroic efforts by local medical workers dispatched to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first reported, as well as the vital contributions of Communist Party members, the agency’s orders said.

Headlines should steer clear of the words “incurable” and “fatal,” one directive said, “to avoid causing societal panic.” When covering restrictions on movement and travel, the word “lockdown” should not be used, said another. Multiple directives emphasized that “negative” news about the virus was not to be promoted.

The Times story contains screenshots of some of the actual CAC directives. One reads, “We must recognize with clear mind the butterfly effect, broken windows effect and snowball effect triggered by this event, and the unprecedented challenge that it has posed to our online opinion management and control work. All Cyberspace Administration bureaus must pay heightened attention to online opinion, and resolutely control anything that seriously damages party and government credibility and attacks the political system …”

And while they were busy promoting this cheerful propaganda, the CAC also continued to remove any information that presented a contrary view. But it appears the censors almost lost control when word spread that Dr. Li Wenliang had died from the virus. Dr. Li was one of the first people to spread news of the virus on social media. For his trouble he was threatened and forced to sign a document promising not to spread any more “rumors.” His death caused a mass outpouring of grief and fury. The CAC just doubled down and continued to manage the content, removing anything that made the Party look bad.

The day after Dr. Li’s death, a directive included a sample of material that was deemed to be “taking advantage of this incident to stir up public opinion”: It was a video interview in which Dr. Li’s mother reminisces tearfully about her son…

In Hangzhou, propaganda workers on round-the-clock shifts wrote up reports describing how they were ensuring people saw nothing that contradicted the soothing message from the Communist Party: that it had the virus firmly under control.

The control of information became so systematic that the CAC set up a point system for media outlets:

The Hangzhou C.A.C. had already been keeping a quarterly scorecard for evaluating how well local platforms were managing their content. Each site started the quarter with 100 points. Points were deducted for failing to adequately police posts or comments. Points might also be added for standout performances.

The Times reports that some estimates suggest there are several hundred thousand people who do media narrative work for the Chinese government part time. That’s a lot of fake commenters using special tools that allow them to quickly guide every conversation in every part of the country.

It’s hard to say if these efforts genuinely work or only succeed in convincing people they are better off not saying things the government clearly doesn’t want said. The fear of repercussions is a real threat in China. Whatever the case, the system seems to succeed in limiting criticism of the CCP, including from foreign journalists.

Control of the media is the most significant power a tyrant can have. Instead of worrying about the excessive freedom on Facebook, we should worry more about the lack of freedom experienced by people in the world’s most populous country.

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