Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other internet powerhouses are scrambling to control the flood of misinformation surrounding the coronavirus, a new and seemingly deadly disease responsible for dozens of deaths in China now spreading to other parts of the globe. But the Chinese government, it now seems, is working against the tide, spreading misinformation of their own to convince foreign governments and world health officials that they’re efficiently handling the outbreak.
The Daily Beast reports that Chinese state media is tweeting photos of roadblocks, checkpoints, and even a hastily constructed hospital to show it’s “on top of things.”
“People’s Daily, owned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the most-circulated newspaper in China, and Lijian Zhao, a deputy director of information with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted an image Monday morning of a building they claimed was a hospital in Wuhan, China, the center of the recent coronavirus outbreak,” the Daily Beast reported Tuesday. “The publication and the bureaucrat said enterprising workers in Wuhan had constructed the hospital in just 16 hours.
“In reality, the picture showed an apartment building more than 600 miles away.”
Both Daily Beast and Buzzfeed News were able to identify the building using an image search, but that didn’t stop other Chinese news sources from propagating the government’s claim.
“The Global Times, another party outlet, published a story Monday about the purported construction,” boasting that the hospital was completed in just 16 hours.
“The government wants to use the new hospital to show it is on top of things, but apparently it is not. Even the picture of the hospital is fake,” a researcher with Human Rights Watch told the Daily Beast.
Such obvious misinformation is actually detrimental to the overall public relations push, experts said, because it makes it appear as though China is deliberately trying to mask their response to the disease, which has, so far, killed around a hundred people and infected 2,700 — a significant number, but by no means indicative of a massive outbreak, or even a pandemic.
To put the numbers in perspective, the Centers for Disease control estimates that “so far this season there have been at least 15 million flu illnesses, 140,000 hospitalizations and 8,200 deaths from flu” in the United States alone.
But China struggles with containing disease, as evidenced by the SARS outbreak that took place in 2003, and those suffering from the coronavirus in China may be more likely to die not because the virus is so severe, but because the country lacks the infrastructure needed to handle a health crisis. A government-sponsored misinformation campaign does little to dispell that impression.
For China, the problem may also be internal. Memories of the SARS outbreak are still fresh in China and, The New York Times reported Monday, Chinese social media sites are overrun with commenters criticizing the government for botching the response to coronavirus. The Chinese government, which heavily censors such sites, seems powerless to control the anger, and it’s only a matter of time before distrust foments into more concrete anti-government action.
In the U.S. and Europe, social media sites and news organizations are working to head off disinformation campaigns, by foreign governments and viral media sources. The outbreak was not planned, “bat soup” is not responsible for the disease (though experts speculate Chinese “wet markets,” which sell warm, freshly slaughtered animal, may be breeding grounds for diseases like coronavirus), and coronavirus is not the result of bioweapons experimentation in Wuhan.