Coronavirus misinformation is fueled by a new force in China: government mistrust

Fake news and junk science are festering in virus-racked China, where uncertainty reigns.

Chen Qinghua, an OB-GYN in China’s Anhui province, moonlights as a health blogger with almost 350,000 followers on popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo. Chen’s Weibo page focuses on reproductive health and pregnancy advice, but since the novel coronavirus outbreak, her posts are interspersed with factoids about the disease, including fact-checks of false health claims that swirl around social media.

“Can taking a hot bath prevent the novel coronavirus pneumonia?” reads a Feb. 17 post. “After seeing reports that the novel coronavirus is not heat-resistant, some people think they can prevent novel coronavirus pneumonia by taking a hot bath.” Taking a hot bath, Chen explained, will not kill the virus in an infected person, as baths do not significantly raise a person’s body temperature. The logic behind the bath claim stems from unproven theories that hotter weather will kill off the virus.

Subscribe to unlock this article and get full access to Fortune.com

Chen Qinghua, an OB-GYN in China’s Anhui province, moonlights as a health blogger with almost 350,000 followers on popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo. Chen’s Weibo page focuses on reproductive health and pregnancy advice, but since the novel coronavirus outbreak, her posts are interspersed with factoids about the disease, including fact-checks of false health claims that swirl around social media.

“Can taking a hot bath prevent the novel coronavirus pneumonia?” reads a Feb. 17 post. “After seeing reports that the novel coronavirus is not heat-resistant, some people think they can prevent novel coronavirus pneumonia by taking a hot bath.” Taking a hot bath, Chen explained, will not kill the virus in an infected person, as baths do not significantly raise a person’s body temperature. The logic behind the bath claim stems from unproven theories that hotter weather will kill off the virus.

Misguided health advice is just one type of misinformation that bubbles up during crises like the coronavirus outbreak. The Wuhan Institute of Virology had to shoot down another.

It released a statement on Sunday denying social media rumors that one of its graduates was “patient zero” of the coronavirus outbreak, a claim that has no supporting evidence. The institute, located in the outbreak’s epicenter, said that the accusations had interfered with its scientific research but did not specify how.

The “patient zero” claims emerged from a conspiracy theory that the virus originated in one of the institute’s labs, an idea peddled in the U.S. by fringe sources like Zero Hedge, which was banned from Twitter for circulating the debunked claim.

People wearing protective masks use smartphones at night in Hong Kong on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. Misinformation is not just plaguing mainland China—Hong Kong and Singapore have also acted to crack down.
Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It is not unusual for conspiracies to crop up around seismic news events, especially ones that are accompanied by so many unknowns like the coronavirus crisis. The laboratory theory, for instance, has gotten some play in the U.S., with Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) publicly floating it several times. But there, independent journalism outlets have quoted experts who’ve proved him wrong. “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked,” reads one Washington Post headline.

The problem carries additional weight in China, where state-run media prevails and government censors monitor user content and decide what appears—or doesn’t—on the Internet. And as Beijing has bungled its response to the viruswithholding early information about the outbreak, reprimanding a whistleblower who later died of the disease, and revising virus data after-the-fact—public trust in the government as the ultimate arbiter of information is starting to erode.

The result is a truth vacuum; a sense that there’s no reliable source for news and no authoritative check on misinformation. It’s a toxic environment where falsehoods can fester. It’s alarming to those living in its midst, especially since a nation’s public health is at stake.

Treating an ‘infodemic’

The novel coronavirus disease, dubbed Covid-19 by the World Health Organization, has sickened more than 75,000 people. More than 2,000 have died, while some 14,500 have recovered, according to data from Johns Hopkins’ Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

The WHO on Jan. 30 declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency.

“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems and which are ill prepared to deal with it,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the time.

The death of Dr. Li Wenliang, a coronavirus whistleblower from Wuhan, drew tributes as far away as the UCLA campus in Westwood, Cali., which is seen here. His passing is being seen as a turning point in the Chinese public’s attitudes toward Beijing.
MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

But the WHO has also cited the dangers of misinformation about the outbreak; one official last week called the deluge of false information on social media an “infodemic.” One false report that circulated, for instance, claimed that drinking bleach would cure the disease; in reality, doing so could cause liver failure.

The WHO has done its part to beat back other instances of misinformation. On its “myth busters” webpage, it’s debunked the beliefs that hand dryers, ultraviolet lamps, mouthwash, garlic, and sesame oil can all separately kill the virus or prevent its spread. (They cannot.)

A WHO official flew to Silicon Valley for a Feb. 13 meeting with representatives from Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Amazon, Google, and other tech companies, urging them to crack down on bogus health claims and promote scientifically-backed information about the virus. The tech companies agreed to regular meetings about the virus; they pledged to work with public health groups to promote better content and create a call center to give advice about the virus.

Governments too have tried to police erroneous rumors and junk science. Officials in Hong Kong have condemned people with “evil intentions” who share false claims. A security guard in Hong Kong was arrested on Feb. 4 for allegedly sharing false information on social media that several fellow staff members had fevers and called in sick.

The government in Singapore created an official Whatsapp service to send out coronavirus updates, and it says 360,000 people—Singapore’s population is 5.7 million—have signed up.

“When you have an outbreak like this, it is not just a public health challenge,” S. Iswaran, Singapore’s minister for communications and information, told CNBC. “It is also a communication and psychological challenge.”

A desperate search for answers

The challenge is especially acute in China. There, news is dominated by state-run entities like People’s Daily, seen as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, and Xinhua News Agency, the largest media organization in China.

Independent news sources in China do exist, like Beijing-based magazine Caijing and business media outlet Caixin. They’ve been praised for their in-depth coverage of the outbreak but are starting to face pressure to publish “less critical” stories, said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It’s comparable to the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, when Chinese journalists were allowed to report relatively freely until the government clamped down on negative coverage.

“There was a brief window for critical reporting, and then censorship leveled up,” Fang said.

Government censors also police user-generated online content: social media posts critical of the authorities can disappear within hours, and the accounts behind the posts are sometimes suspended or banned. Wuhan novelist Fang Fang’s Weibo account was suspended hours after she posted a tribute essay on Feb. 8 to Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor. And prominent citizen journalists who criticized the government response to the outbreak in Hubei have gone missing in recent weeks.

Limitations on political freedoms and a free press are seen as the public’s end of a long-standing bargain with Beijing; in exchange, they’re assured prosperity and health. But the coronavirus has led some in China to question whether Beijing is holding up its side of the contract, with the government’s handling of the outbreak sparking broad and rarely-expressed anger from Chinese citizens online.

A turning point came in the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who first blew the whistle on the outbreak but was silenced and reprimanded by authorities for doing so. Li later contracted the coronavirus and died on Feb. 7, prompting an outpouring of public grief, outrage, and increased calls for free speech, many of which went uncensored for hours.

“[I]t’s quite phenomenal because I think this is the first large-scale expression calling for free speech among netizens since Xi Jinping took power,” said Fang.

Fake news and misinformation flourishes when there is a lack of trust in established news sources, Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, told NPR. In China, Fang said, mistrust in state media is growing.

Those doubts are exacerbating the sense of confusion about the coronavirus, leading a concerned public to look elsewhere for answers.

One American student in the Chinese city of Kunming told Fortune her Mandarin teacher asked her in late January to share reports of the coronavirus death toll from The New York Times or other “Western media sources” that are blocked in China. The teacher explained that she and her family have found it difficult to access “consistent information” since the SARS outbreak in 2003.

People in China are also turning to social media. Dominant players like messaging app WeChat and Twitter-like Weibo—with 1.1 billion and 500 million monthly active users, respectively—are ubiquitous, while relative newcomers like Douyin and Kuaishou continue to gain popularity. The platforms did not exist during SARS, but are now embedded in everyday life. They’re filled with an indiscriminate mix of official news, unverified content, fake news, doctored videos, and misleading information.

WeChat owner Tencent, at the government’s request, installed a health mini-app to provide verified updates about the virus and bust myths, but the scale of information makes it hard to moderate completely.

At the same time, the apps have opened an avenue for citizens in China to reach out for help. Coronavirus patients and their relatives at understaffed hospitals in Wuhan’s Hubei province are posting videos and text messages asking for food, medical supplies, and support.

“We hope everyone can understand that we are feeling as though it is the end of the world. We really need everyone’s help,” one social media user in Wuhan wrote, according to RTHK.

The content seems to elude censors, Fang said, due in part to the sheer number of uploads and because officials are wary of the potential online backlash if they scrub the web of “authentic stories” from desperate residents and patients “calling for help.”

The posts serve as credible glimpses of an outbreak steeped in so much uncertainty. Sometimes the messages do get censored, Fang said, “but people keep reposting them.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

Business’s coronavirus conundrum: What’s the best alternative to a handshake?
—Bernard Arnault was briefly the world’s richest man. Then coronavirus struck
Why China is still so susceptible to disease outbreaks
Contagion writer, scientific adviser reflect on film’s newfound relevance
—Fortune Explains: Tariffs and trade wars

Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily digest on the business of tech.