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    Fighting Fake News With Fire: COVID-19 Post Lands Man in Jail

    Since the start of the pandemic, Chinese police have detained hundreds of “rumormongers.”

    When a man surnamed Jin logged on to social media to discuss China’s COVID-19 flare-up earlier this week, he wasn’t shy about sharing some alternative facts.

    Soon after, Jin became one of the hundreds of people to be given brief jail sentences this year for spreading false information about the pandemic.

    Police in Qingdao, the eastern Chinese city that on Monday reported 12 new infections, said the 21-year-old had exaggerated the extent of the outbreak in order to gain followers on microblogging site Weibo.

    Jin was given 15 days’ administrative detention — a punishment that in China does not require a judge’s involvement — and fined 500 yuan ($74), police announced Tuesday.

    The Chinese government regulates what can be posted on social media, with all accounts linked to people’s ID cards. It has used administrative detention as a deterrent for years — for example, when people exaggerated the number of casualties after a building collapsed in 2016.

    But Chinese police have seemed especially active cracking down on false information about the COVID-19 pandemic. On Feb. 21, at a time when China was seeing hundreds of new infections a day, the Ministry of Public Security said police around the country had handled 5,511 cases of false or harmful information about the coronavirus, without specifying the punishments involved.

    By the end of March, Chinese media had written about nearly 900 such cases, a report found. “Most people involved in these cases were administratively detained for 3-15 days and forced to admit wrongdoing,” it said. “Some of them were fined, given verbal warnings, educational reprimand, or criminal detention.” In most instances, they had gotten in trouble for posts on Weibo or messaging app WeChat.

    More social media users have been locked up since. In June, during an outbreak in Beijing, police there announced 60 misinformation cases, detaining 10 people — some of whom had falsely claimed thousands of people had died — and reprimanding the others.

    In March, a new cybersecurity regulation went into effect. It stated that anyone who “spreads rumors” and “disturbs social order” is in violation of the law, and in some cases may be criminally prosecuted, without specifying penalties. The country’s top court and prosecutor had previously said in 2013 that those who create misleading social media posts that are viewed 5,000 times and shared 500 times may be charged with defamation, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

    Chinese authorities’ rumor-quashing tools also include the ability to directly flag posts on Weibo, as well as various sites on which they dispel popular falsehoods.

    While Qingdao’s health authorities are now testing the city’s entire population of over 9 million for the coronavirus, resulting in no new positive tests so far, the local internet regulator’s rumor-busting platform on WeChat has been busy setting the record straight about some widely shared falsehoods. Since the start of the current outbreak, it has collected around 20 examples.

    People sharing fake information about COVID-19 has been an issue on Western social media, too, though perpetrators face far less severe consequences. Most famously, U.S. President Donald Trump’s untrue claim that COVID-19 isn’t as lethal as the flu was hidden by Twitter and deleted by Facebook.

    China’s approach has at times also backfired. In March, authorities in Wuhan were forced to give a rare apology to the family of Li Wenliang, one of eight doctors police had reprimanded in early January for “spreading rumors” about a string of pneumonia cases. Li’s death from COVID-19 in February triggered an outpouring of grief, but also anger over how he had been treated.

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: People receive COVID-19 nucleic acid tests in Qingdao, Shandong province, Oct. 13, 2020. People Visual)