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2020-03-19 12:46:27

While COVID-19 has largely been brought under control in China, fake news about the coronavirus ravaging foreign countries is spreading online at an alarming rate.

People who spend a lot of time on Chinese social media may recognize the following headline template: “(Country) under coronavirus: shops shut down, difficult to return home, it’s so hard to stay in (country)!!” Depending on which articles they’ve come across, they may recall Algeria, Indonesia, Egypt, or some other country as the subject of the article, though the content for each is largely the same.

As COVID-19 infections fall in China but rise abroad, social messaging app WeChat has been flooded with fake news about the supposedly chaotic pandemic situations in foreign countries. An analysis published Wednesday by Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper said that, out of more than three dozen public accounts found to be spreading fake news, many were publishing nearly identical articles, with the only differences being the country’s name and a few minor details.

The Paper’s analysis cited articles published by two public accounts called “Ethiopia Information for Chinese” and “Hungary Information for Chinese.” Both articles described how businesses in the respective countries had been severely affected by the pandemic, as told through the eyes of a Chinese person living there — a Mr. Xu in the Ethiopia story and a Ms. Liu in the Hungary story. Both articles said that although Xu (or Liu) was worried about the virus, he (or she) had resolved to remain abroad rather than return to China.

Screenshots of “copy-and-paste” articles about the supposed pandemic situations in foreign countries, published on accounts managed by the trio of relatives in Fuqing, Fujian province. From Weibo

Screenshots of “copy-and-paste” articles about the supposed pandemic situations in foreign countries, published on accounts managed by the trio of relatives in Fuqing, Fujian province. From Weibo

The analysis also traced the nearly identical articles to three companies in Fuqing, in the eastern Fujian province — a city that, like Wenzhou to the north, is known for its large number of emigrants abroad. Together, the three companies manage at least 68 different WeChat accounts that claim to share news from Europe, Africa, South America, and elsewhere in Asia.

According to Shanghai Observer, another domestic outlet, the companies are controlled by three people in the same family: Guo Hong, Xue Yuming, and Guo Shiqiang.

Guo Shiqiang bluntly told the outlet that the articles were fabricated in order to capitalize on people’s interest in the pandemic. Since there are lots of people from Fuqing working overseas, he had decided to share articles about the COVID-19 situation abroad in hopes of getting their attention, according to Shanghai Observer.

Most of the trio’s spurious stories have been deleted by WeChat, and they are currently under investigation by local police.

A graphic shows how the trio of relatives from Fuqing manage at least 68 WeChat public accounts. From The Paper

A graphic shows how the trio of relatives from Fuqing manage at least 68 WeChat public accounts. From The Paper

But such copy-and-paste content about how overseas countries are being overwhelmed by the coronavirus is still spreading among Chinese users on Twitter, with some posting about how “countless people have died in their homes,” or how there are “no test kits” in the U.S, Australia, France, and Japan, among other places.

Fake news about the outside world isn’t a new phenomenon in China. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, many domestic companies were knowingly dealing in disinformation, relying on sensational and patriotic content to attract views, likes, and shares. They would translate news from unreliable sources or deliberately misrepresent information from credible ones.

As COVID-19 went global, however, the fake news generators shifted into high gear. In early March, a hashtag translating to “U.S. CDC stops disclosing states’ confirmed infection data” went viral on microblogging platform Weibo, garnering over 500 million views. Because the vast majority of the accompanying posts neglected to mention that each state is now responsible for publicizing its own COVID-19 numbers, many in China assumed the U.S. was trying to conceal its outbreak data.

“To think that U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo said ‘I wish every country would share its coronavirus information openly and transparently, especially China,’” one Weibo user commented below a related media post.

The preponderance of disinformation has led many in China to believe that foreign countries’ COVID-19 control and prevention measures are ineffective, if not outright stupid. This sentiment has culminated in the emergence of the social media buzzword “copy homework” — suggesting that other countries should follow China’s example and adopt more stringent containment policies.

Meanwhile, on another front, fake news has cast the source of the novel coronavirus — once widely agreed to be the South China Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan — into doubt. Since Chinese netizens and media misinterpreted, or deliberately misrepresented, a televised CNN headline reading “CDC confirms first coronavirus case of ‘unknown’ origin in U.S.,” a Weibo hashtag translating to “novel coronavirus originated in U.S.” has been viewed over 31 million times.

A screenshot from CNN showing the headline “CDC confirms first coronavirus case originated in U.S.,” which has been interpreted by some in China as an admission that the virus originated in the U.S. From Weibo

A screenshot from CNN showing the headline “CDC confirms first coronavirus case originated in U.S.,” which has been interpreted by some in China as an admission that the virus originated in the U.S. From Weibo

The spread of disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic may boil down to the Chinese authorities’ tolerance for nationalist discourse, according to Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication.

“People are influenced by their existing beliefs and prejudices, and this affects how they receive information,” he told Sixth Tone. “Because of biases, people may not be willing to further fact-check the information they receive.”

According to Fang, the spread of disinformation not only affects people’s understanding of the pandemic situation overseas, but also contributes to a self-satisfied mentality that inhibits people from learning from the crisis.

“Disinformation has given people an excuse not to reflect on their own problems,” Fang said.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: A masked man uses his cellphone near Foxconn’s factory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, March 2020. IC)