Note: I've been encouraged by a person I look up to in journalism and politics to translate my previous blog article which is in Chinese. So that's what I did. The first part of this short essay is about new forms of rumor circulating in China that are hard to distinguish from hard truth. The second part is about how and, in my opinion, why the regime is employing rumor as a propaganda tactic.
I'm in no way a good writer in both languages (received no formal education of any sort in the west.) But I do want to go the extra mile to explain my little observations of the Chinese propaganda's usage of rumor to a broader audience. I sincerely appreciate it if you find this essay insightful. If you would like to discuss with me you're more than welcomed to reach me on Twitter. Thanks!
As a journalist, I deal with a multitude of information on a daily basis. That's especially the case when we are presented with such a global public health crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic.
The quality of information matters immensely in situations like this. I want to briefly direct your attention to an opinion piece on the Scientific American written by Dr. Bill Hanage and Dr. Marc Lipsitch, both great epidemiologists at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. They did a great job dissecting and categorizing different types of information.
In short, there are three categories of information about an outbreak of a communicable disease:
(A) what we know is true; (B) what we think is true—fact-based assessments that also depend on inference, extrapolation or educated interpretation of facts that reflect an individual’s view of what is most likely to be going on; and (C) opinions and speculation.
And of course, if I may add, there's another category of information: rumor.
Wikipedia explains rumor as "a tall tale of explanations of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event, or issue in public concern." However, in the context of Chinese language and the age of internet-driven public opinion, rumor possesses more of a derogatory meaning here in China. It is generally used to categorize information that is not fact-based, but rather invented out of thin air or manufactured for numerous purposes—be them simply trolling around, or more conscious ones.
Rumor in the Chinese context is often baseless speculations that are lacking in trustworthy source and hard for average readership to do their own fact-checking. That's a big difference compared to what I perceived as the western people's understanding towards rumor, which is mostly neutral. Keep in mind that I'm only going to talk about rumor in the Chinese context in this essay.
What I was pleased to see is that Chinese people are finally showing signs that they are fed up with these baseless rumor, and are more cautious than ever about their information intake. However, I've began to see two advanced versions of rumor beginning to circulate and people are still falling for them.
The first is forged statements claimed to have come from prestigious sources containing baseless claims that, upon first hear, sound kind of legit.
One example is the rumor of "holding your breath for 10 sec to check if you are infected with Covid-19", believed to be originated from an Indian entertainment website, citing that it proves that if you can, then you don't have pulmonary fibrosis. This one, or more specifically, the Chinese translated version, had been circulating quite well among my Chinese friends in the U.S.
It turns out that while most Covid-19 patients don't even get to the stage that develops fibrosis, inpatients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease can hold their breath for up to 32 seconds effortlessly.
The second version is usually parts of the truth taken out of context and repackaged into new pieces of news.
One example is this article I found on WeChat, claiming in its title that "White House has been shut down", and that "Trump has tested possitive for Covid-19". Well, at least the writer had the decency to clarify in the text that it's only the part of the White House accessible to the public tours was shut down.
Lots of different information are being pushed out from state-owned mouthpieces, independent outlets, so-called "self media" and social networks, then pushed into people's phones and then their heads. With these types of rumor, people's ability to identify misinformation and conduct fact-checking is facing a challenge bigger than ever.
As I've said earlier, Chinese people are beginning to realize the importance of distinguishing between rumor and truth. However, these advanced rumors are manufacturered to spec to take advantage of that, tricking people into believing that they are real and trustworthy.
Another way to look at the harm these advanced rumors can do: as China has gone through the most desperate stages of the epidemic, and the rest of the world is only beginning to get a taste of what China had. Chinese people are turning their attention to other countries, namely those currently suffering the most, like the U.S., Italy, etc.
And let's be honest: rumor about the world outside of China being true or not doesn't really have a material difference on Chinese people, who do not and cannot actually care more about other countries being in danger than their own being great. Nationalistic pride is so cheaply and easily manufactured these days. I don't have a study on this, but believe me: bad news about other countries, even if it is fake, is usually exactly what many Chinese people would like to hear.
As a journalist who values integrity, I firmly detest manufacturing and spreading rumor, not because I don't want the audience to read what they want, but to allow them to be exposed to the information they should be exposed to: information that isn't easily acccessible due to the the Great Fire Wall, or that is being intentionally omitted from reports for reasons I won't spend time to mention here.
The Chinese people have long been deprived of the right to know—about the reality of the world they are living in. By teaching and democratizing media literacy, a lot of my peers are trying to guide the readers to become better consumers of information, forming their own different, objective, and accurate, understanding of the world.
We can't achieve that by allowing those seemingly legit "half truth", inaccurate information about the world which the people have been deprived of the right to see clearly, to spread.
Let's move on to the instrumentalization of rumor.
As essentially fake, useless information, rumor should be flushed into the sewage of information if it is a healthy market we are talking about. But that's not the case in China, where bad information actually drives out the good through the popularization of "self media" platforms like WeChat Official Accounts and Toutiao.
In the past, these misinformation has largely been harmless. However, since the pandemic started raging throughout the globe, we are actually beginning to see disinformation campaigns being pushed by the Chinese regime and causing political turmoils on a global scale.
No one demonstrates it better than Zhao Lijian, Deputy Director of the Information Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China.
There's more to this unfounded rhetoric that U.S. soldiers brought the Novel Coronavirus (now known as SARS-CoV-2) into Wuhan when the city hosted the Military World Games last year.
Back in Feb 23, Zhang Dingyu, dean of Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, the hospital that took in the five U.S. athletes sick with a communicable disease during the Military World Games, told fact checkers at Beijing Association for Science and Technology (an actual government-affiliated organization) that all five inpatients were infected with malaria, rather than a coronavirus. It may be a bit far-fetching to say this, but at least you can see now that Zhao Lijian, acting in his own or the MFA's capacity, is pushing a conspiracy theory that the Beijing Government had already refuted.
But that's not all. Back in late January, an Inner Mongolian guy surnamed Man posted on social media a video he recorded, in which he claimed that "the pneumonia outbreak is the result of the U.S. using genetic weapons in China." Mr. Man was detained for 10 days and fined 500 Yuan for doing that. Guancha.cn, which is believed to be affiliated with the central government, picked up the news on Feb 9.
It hurts my brain to find a logical explanation for MFA's spinning of this conspiracy theory after it's been refuted and someone being arrested for spreading it. Luckily, I managed to find one.
I would argue that rumor is being instrumentalized by the Chinese regime to push their diplomatic narratives that China is not taking the blame for the global Covid-19 pandemic, as well as creating an optic through which a favorable domestic public opinion enviroment is projected.
I used the term “被工具化” instead of just “工具化” in my original Chinese version of this essay, as I explained that adding “被” more accurately illustrate the point I'm trying to make here, which is:
The manufacturer of this rumor may or may not have wanted to achieve any serious goal with it. However, it is often another group of people, in this case the regime, that gave the theory a larger meaning.
As I've stated earlier, Chinese people are shifting attention from domestic Covid-19 affairs to the rest of the world. Through weeks of devastating sacrifices of its people, China has come out now as a prideful surviver, eager to prop up its national image, advertise the whole-nation system's proven effectiveness against a public health crisis.
While propagating oneself, it doesn't really hurt—actually, it helps, to launch a disinformation campaign against your enemy to demonstrate to your people how great their nation is. It makes them feel more like they are the innocent victim in this pandemic than ever, and gets them to strengthen their bond with the regime. This is exactly how nationalistic pride and public opinion work in China.
In the hands of the right people, baseless rumor is not only useful. It works like a charm.
That's about the most of this essay. In the original version I also included a little call-to-action to Chinese readers on dealing with disinformation. I'm going to include those words here as I think people outside of China should hear it too. With that said, as readers from the rest of the world where press freedom is largely protected and media literacy education is affluent, your mileage may vary. Here it goes:
When dealing with these technically advanced and instrumentalized rumor, we need to develop a heightened awareness. We need to be cautious of those information that claim to have endorsements from so-called experts, and even the government. Even information that seems legit and agreeable can be false.
We need more people (preferably with multilingual abilities and professional expertise) to venture beyond the Great Fire Wall to do more fact-checking and spread the word. We need to be conscious not to repost reports before they are confirmed and you can be factually certain about them.
We aren't born with the ability to distinguish between rumor and truth. Media literacy can take years, if not decades, to train. Rest assured, it will be worth our while. I would argue that if enough proportion of the society gained a good sense of media literacy, the cost to manufacture and spread rumor would soar. If more of us can see these rumor for what they are—disinformation campaigns deviced to deceive and mislead, then the creaters' reputation would easily go bankrupt. We might even force the regime to rethink their strategy and start treating people's intelligence with decency.
Only by then can we finally start to enjoy a stream of information in the quality we rightfully deserve.