The New York Times publishes details on how China censored news about the coronavirus

If China had provided more details on the coronavirus in February 2020, the other countries may have prepared better. Many thought that it was something local, that it was not so contagious, that it would never significantly leave China … there were not many details, and now the reason is known.

A few minutes ago The New York Times published an article where it shows in detail how China censored media at the beginning of the year so that it was not talked about on the subject, and the list of examples is endless.

China’s censors decided «suppress inconvenient news and bring back the narrative, ‘and ordered news websites to did not issue automatic notifications to alert readers to the death of the doctor who had warned about a strange new viral outbreak. They told social platforms to phase out their name from current affairs pages and put thousands of online commenters to work to flood social sites with distracting topics (like content on tiktok and so on).

In the article you can see secret government directives and many other documents that were reviewed by The New York Times and ProPublica (the two media collaborated on the subject). They reveal in great detail the systems that helped Chinese authorities shape opinion online during the pandemic.

To manage what appeared on the Chinese Internet earlier this year, authorities issued strict orders on the content and tone of news coverage, ordered paid trolls to flood social media with verbiage, and deployed security forces to silence unauthorized voices.

The United States and other countries have been accusing China for months of trying to hide the extent of the outbreak in its early stages, and it appears to have been true.

We don’t know if a freer flow of information from China would have prevented the outbreak from transforming into what it did, but it has been shown that in China they went to great lengths to make the virus appear less dangerous, less contagious and deadly.

The leaked documents

The documents include more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos and other files from the offices of the country’s Internet regulator, the China Cyberspace Administration. They can be found from internal files to codes of a Chinese company, Urun Big Data Services, which makes software used by local governments to monitor discussions on the Internet and manage the work of thousands of commentators hired to manipulate public opinion.

These documents were shared with The Times and ProPublica by a group of hackers calling themselves C.C.P. Unmasked, referring to the Communist Party of China. The Times and ProPublica independently verified the authenticity of many of the documents, some of which had been obtained separately by China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls.

When the censorship started

In the first week of January an agency directive ordered news websites to use only material published by the government and that they were not case-related to the deadly SARS outbreak in China and elsewhere that began in 2002, even as the World Health Organization was noting the similarities.

In early February, a high-level meeting led by Mr. Xi called for stricter management of digital media, and CAC offices across the country jumped into action. One directive said the agency should not only monitor the message within China, but also seek “actively influence international opinion«.

Agency workers began receiving links to virus-related articles to promote on local news aggregators and social media. The directives specified which links should appear on startup screens of news sites, how many hours they should stay online, and even which headlines should appear in bold.

Online reports should highlight the heroic efforts of 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, per agency orders.

In the directive you can read phrases like:

– Headlines they must not have the words “incurable” and “fatal” to avoid causing social panic.
– By covering movement and travel restrictions, the word “confinement” should not be used.
The “negative” news about the virus should not be promoted.
– Avoid giving the false impression that our fight against the epidemic is based on foreign donations.

When a Zhejiang prison official who lied about his travels caused an outbreak among inmates, the CAC asked local offices to monitor the case closely because it “could easily attract foreign attention.”

The media were also told that do not reproduce reports on donations and purchases of medical supplies abroadAs they could cause a backlash in other countries and disrupt China’s procurement efforts, which were attracting large amounts of personal protective equipment as the virus spread abroad.

The size of the censorship machine

According to the New York Times article, researchers have estimated that hundreds of thousands of people in China work part time to post comments and share content that reinforces the state ideology. Many of them are low-level employees in government departments and party organizations. Universities have recruited students and professors for the task.

China’s government departments have a variety of specialized software at your disposal to shape what the public sees online. One maker of such software, Urun, has won at least two dozen contracts with local agencies and state companies since 2016, government procurement records show. According to an analysis of computer code and Urun documents, the company’s products can track trends online, coordinate censorship activity and manage fake social media accounts to post comments.

Is this all a crime?

The consequences of this article have yet to be analyzed. China is within its right to censor whatever it wants within its own country, since the type of government they have allows it, but the moment it affects the international community, things can change.

During the next week we will read several news items on the subject, and we will be able to learn more details about the impact of this important document filtering.

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Lenny Li

I started to play with tech since middle school. Smart phones, laptops and gadgets are all about my life. Besides, I am also a big fan of Star War. May the force be with you!

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