How China used an online army of trolls to censor deadly virus news

Leaked documents show that the ruling Communist Party played down the severity of the coronavirus outbreak

A major investigation has shown that China launched a massive censorship campaign and “muzzled dissenting voices” when Covid-19 first surfaced in the city of Wuhan.

Even before the outbreak was officially confirmed by the ruling Communist Party in January, the CCP had rolled out an army of propaganda “paid trolls” to flood social media with “distracting chatter.”

At least 5,000 directives and memos from internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, have been “independently verified” by The New York Times and ProPublica, an independent non-profit team of investigative journalists in the United States.

“China’s curbs on information about the outbreak started in early January before the novel coronavirus had even been definitively identified, the documents show. When infections started spreading rapidly a few weeks later, the authorities clamped down on anything that cast China’s response in a ‘negative’ light,” The New York Times reported.

The facts:

  • More than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos were leaked by hacker group CCP Unmasked. The acronym is a reference to the Chinese Communist Party.
  • These included internal files and computer code from a Chinese company, Urun Big Data Services, which makes local government software to monitor the internet.
  • Officials ordered China’s state-run media to clamp down on anything that cast China’s response in a “negative” light.
  • Directives included warnings that headlines should not include “incurable” and “fatal … to avoid causing societal panic.”

What the investigation by The New York Times and ProPublica revealed: “At a time when digital media is deepening social divides in Western democracies, China is manipulating online discourse to enforce the Communist Party’s consensus. To stage-manage what appeared on the Chinese internet early this year, the authorities issued strict commands on the content and tone of news coverage, directed paid trolls to inundate social media with party-line blather, and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices.”

Reaction to the news: Beijing has always maintained that it acted in a “transparent” manner when this new strain of coronavirus first surfaced in Wuhan. “China’s response was “scientific, timely [and] transparent … [laying] the foundation for the global control of the pandemic. Virus isolation, genome sequencing, specifying the average incubation period, and determining the main modes of transmission were the most important contributions made by Chinese scientists to the world,” Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier this month as reported by the state-controlled Global Times.

China Factor comment: This latest investigation by The New York Times and ProPublica simply adds to growing evidence that the Communist Party of China was involved in a web of deceit. Since the World Health Organisation confirmed a worldwide pandemic at the start of the year, nearly 77 million people have been infected globally. The death toll is hovering close to two million, according to the Johns Hopkins University. So, what we need now is facts not fiction from the CCP.