Battling Coronavirus in China Under a Censored Network
Published at Adjacent March Newsletter
A Special Chinese New Year
Jan 24, the night before Chinese New Year. CCTV(China Central Television) was broadcasting the New Year’s gala, celebrating a day of joy, reunion, and hopes. Meanwhile, a completely different “show” was going on with the hashtag “#Wuhan SOS” (武汉紧急求援) on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media.
As I scrolled down on my phone, countless posts alike showed up. I felt like I was drowning in the deafening screaming for life, powerless for there is nothing I can do. All I could do was to click “repost”. I looked away from the phone, people on TV were singing and dancing. It was almost like two realities existing at the same time.
Weibo posts with hashtag #WuhanSOS(武汉紧急求援）on the night of Chinese New Year, juxtaposedwith Chinese New Year gala that broadcasted on Chinese Central Television on the same night.
Use of Digital Tools in Shaping the Narrative
Weibo, usually referred to as the Chinese Twitter, has become the major platform for younger generations to learn about news and public opinions in China. Being the largest social media platform for individuals, corporations, and government agencies to publish and broadcast information in the public sphere, Weibo has taken a critical role in circulating information and shaping the collective narrative during the novel Coronavirus outbreak.
Government agencies use Weibo to issue “official announcements.” On Jan 1, Wuhan police’s official Weibo account posted “The rumors about SARS-like pneumonia are untrue. We have reprimanded 8 people who spread rumors.” Millions of people took their words; they went on with their lives without taking any precautions.
Weibo from Wuhan Police about reprimanding 8 people for spreading rumors. The origin Weibo has been deleted
As it turns out, those rumors were not rumors, but information that government officials were attempting to seal from the public. People grew angry and disappointed at the appeasing disinformation that put them in danger. As the responsible government has lost its accountability, people started to rely more on individual sources on social media in the hope to get trust-worthy, first-hand information about the outbreak.
Many users of Weibo go to doctors’ accounts for the latest updates about the virus; Dr. Do, who posted the “SOS” tweet for Wuhan Xiehe hospital, gained over 4million followers since the nCOV outbreak — and he is just one of many. As many Chinese people remain skeptical about the official statistical number, reports from the government accounts, and how severe the infection really is in Wuhan, what they can see and trust are the countless individuals asking for help on Weibo, as well as videos of overcrowded hospitals and crying doctors.