Future Tense

How the Chinese Government Is Trying to Quash Coronavirus Rumors on Social Media

China is dealing with both a public health crisis and a public relations crisis.

A motorcyclist wearing a face mask looks at his phone while sitting on his bike.
Macau, China, on Tuesday. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The Chinese Spring Festival is a time when the whole nation shuts down. Restaurants, shops, grocery stores, and movie theaters close their doors as some 3 billion trips are made and people head home for the holiday and take a break. This mass return to one’s place of origin is recognized as the largest recurring human migration on the planet.

This year, however, has taken on a different tone. Instead of the typical Spring Festival notices, closed storefronts have posted signs about the Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV). It’s unclear when many will open again. Instead of getting together with friends and relatives, most people are opting to hunker down and stay at home.

On Wednesday, Chinese officials confirmed that 5,974 cases have been identified in the country. The number may be higher but cannot be confirmed, as there is a shortage of medical test kits. Thus far, 130 people have died. In an effort to restrain the virus’s spread, the Chinese government implemented one of the most extreme measures possible—medical quarantine. The largest in history, it includes several central cities and affects some 50 million people.

Beyond this, the Spring Festival holiday has been extended by two days for employees of any state-owned enterprise, another government effort to slow the spread of the virus. It’s a largely unprecedented move. (In China, “vacation time” can be a misnomer; days off are often compensated for by scheduling additional work days on the weekends. The idea of “work-life balance” is a foreign luxury.) Universities and schools have told students to not return to campuses until further announcement.

Naturally, the coronavirus has become an unavoidable topic of conversation, particularly on social media. Every day, friends, family, and colleagues share reminders to wear face masks and avoid public places. There’s a constant flow of content—videos, audio files, screenshots, posters—about the virus.

Government censors are doing double time trying to control discussion of the topic, hoping to lock in a government monopoly on information about the virus. One of the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest fears is loss of control. Mass panic in the world’s most populous country is something no one, in China or abroad, wants to see. This burdens the Chinese government with two problems: a public health crisis and a public relations crisis. But from the start, officials have had a disadvantaged position due to China’s lackluster transparency track record. Freedom House’s most recent assessment of press freedom in China gave a score of 87, with 100 being the least free. Under President Xi Jinping, media restrictions have tightened for both foreign and domestic press.

In true strongman fashion, Xi gave a speech saying that, “faced with the grave situation of an accelerating spread of the new coronavirus … it is necessary to strengthen the centralised and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee.” He instructed officials to “guide public opinion.” This can mean correcting misinformation, but also stifling the truth; in China, it is illegal to spread information that disrupts social order—even when the information may be factual. It’s one of the reasons China’s state media lacks credibility. Yet it is the only sanctioned source of information, heightening the tension about the virus.

Paradoxically, China’s censorship undermines state media attempts to quash outlandish rumors (Caucasians are immune from the novel virus) and mistruths (wearing multiple layers of face masks can protect against the virus). Still, the People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper and a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, has launched a “Rumor Refuting” campaign. Taking to the widely used social networking app WeChat, the newspaper is distributing shareable digital posters that address the most pernicious rumors. These brief, lilac-hued announcements, in turn, shed light on which rumors have reached the widest audiences and/or which the government deems most harmful.

The “Don’t believe these rumors!” series has addressed a range of percolating fears: A man traveling by train had a 10-minute layover in Wuhan and was infected with the virus. SARS is a biological warfare attack. A Beijing hospital had an infected patient who ran away. Drinking indigo woad root and smoked vinegar can help prevent contracting the virus.

Each rumor is then debunked. In response to the biological warfare rumor, for example, the poster explains that it is an unfounded conspiracy theory that provides no benefit to preventing the spread of the virus. It criticizes the rumor as “absolutely unfounded and without merit; it only creates terror and adds chaos to chaos.”

If the rumor-refuting campaign is a defensive measure, the People’s Daily is also going on the offensive to steer public opinion by issuing other shareable posters via its WeChat channel. These posts have been viewed by more than 100,000 readers, and many are upvoted by several tens of thousands. One reads, “Confidence is a long-lasting vaccine in the face of an epidemic”; another reminds people that “combating the epidemic is not equivalent to being afraid of Hubei people.” (Wuhan, where the virus originated, is the capital of central Hubei Province.)

Some people may be spreading false rumors for personal benefit. Shops that sell face masks are benefiting from the rumor that layering masks is an effective method to avoid the coronavirus, for instance. In an op-ed released by the People’s Daily, the author criticized a drugstore in Beijing that was charging about $122 for 10 masks, a price 280 times the usual. The store was penalized the maximum fine of $3 million RMB ($432,482). The author warned that “in times like these, you have to use a bull’s knife to kill chickens.” Such phrasing advises other sellers to not attempt the same.

China wants to prove to the world, and its citizens, that it learned its lesson from SARS, when it was accused of underreporting the number of infected patients and downplaying the true threat. In any country, when a crisis arises, there is sudden, intense pressure for a trusted entity to provide constant, comprehensive, factual information. It’s an almost impossible task for any large bureaucracy to manage—and especially for China’s.

One of the core issues is that China’s bureaucracy has an ascending structure—officials are responsible to their superiors. It is an official’s boss who makes the final decision about whether the official will advance. There are no constituents to hold bureaucrats accountable. While there have been warnings from the highest levels of government that those who conceal information run the risk of “being nailed to the pillar of shame for eternity”—the system ultimately still rewards falling in line with one’s direct supervisor, even if their guidance runs counter to instructions from the top.

On Wednesday evening the nightly news featured an interview of a man who had been discharged from the hospital. He had contracted the virus but recovered, went home, and is undergoing an additional two weeks of self-imposed quarantine, just to be sure. It seemed to be an encouraging case. His face was blurred out, which may have been to protect his privacy, but also might have been because the story was fabricated to calm people. Sometimes, we can only hope that the good news is true.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.