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Mischief managed: From engaging troll army to weaponising censorship, how China built narrative around coronavirus

It is shocking how the Chinese CCP has managed to manipulate the online discourse as the world fought the pandemic.

That China has gone to great lengths to hide the truth about coronavirus does not come as a surprise anymore. A New York Times report reveals how China censored the internet to suppress the negative news and sentiments surrounding COVID-19.

It all started in January 2020 when the world was not aware what is going to hit them in few days’ time.

It all started with Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who warned about a strange viral outbreak only to be accused of spreading rumours and threatened by police. He eventually succumbed to the virus. However, Chinese officials set into motion one of the longest censorship movement to suppress the inconvenient truth.

In a bid to reclaim the narrative, confidential directives were sent to propaganda workers and news outlets. Websites were asked not to push notifications about his death. Social media platforms were instructed to remove trending news about his death. Fake online commentators were propped up to distract the conversation surrounding his death.

New York Times and ProPublica accessed thousands of documents that helped the Chinese shape online opinion during the pandemic. Paid trolls were deployed to muzzle unsanctioned voices. In fact, the documents indicate that the Chinese officials did not try to manage the narrative to prevent panic but to make the virus look less severe and Chinese authorities more capable, now that the world was watching.

3,200 directives and 1,800 memos were accessed from Cyberspace Administration of China, in eastern city of Hangzhou. These include internal files and computer codes from Chinese company Urun Big Data Services which makes softwares for government to monitor Internet and manage army of online commentators. Hacker group CCP unmasked had shared these details. Some of the documents were also verified independently by The Times and ProPublica obtained separately by China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls.

CCP and Cyberspace Administration of China

In 2014, Xi Jinping created Cyberspace Administration of China to centralise the management of internet censorship and propaganda as well as other aspects of digital policy. It now reports to CCP’s Central Committee.

Early in January, CAC set into motion to control the narrative surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. As per the report, an agency directive ordered news websites to use only government-published material. They were instructed not to draw any parallels with the deadly SARS outbreak in China and elsewhere that began in 2002, even as the World Health Organization was noting the similarities.

In February 2020, a high-level meeting led by Chinese President called for tighter management of digital media, and the CAC’s offices across the country swung into action. A directive was issued in Zhejiang province, whose capital is Hangzhou where the agency should not only control the message within China, but also seek to “actively influence international opinion.”

Various virus-related links were sent to be promoted. Online reports were to play up ‘heroic efforts’ by local medical workers in Wuhan, where the pandemic began. Headlines were to be sanitised to not include ‘fatal’ and ‘incurable’. ‘Lockdown’ was also to be avoided to avoid ‘negative news’.

News outlets were told not to play up reports on donations and purchases of medical supplies from abroad. As per the agency directive, this kind of reports could cause a backlash overseas and disrupt China’s own procurement efforts with respect to personal protective equipment from abroad as the virus spread globally. China did not want to give an impression that their fight against pandemic is dependent upon foreign donation.

When Li Wenliang died, Chinese netizens descended upon his Weibo profile and left thousands of comments. The day after his death, a directive included a video of his mother reminiscing about her son which was deemed to be “taking advantage of this incident to stir up public opinion”. Soon, various online memorials began to disappear. Groups which were formed to archive deleted posts were arrested by police.

CCP workers worked round the clock to make sure that people did not see anything that contradicted anything that the CCP propagated. In fact, as per research, hundreds of thousands of people in China worked part-time to post comments and share content that reinstates CCP’s ideology. Students and teachers as well as low-level government employees are also recruited to further the CCP ideology.

That is not all. Specialised softwares were used to to shape public opinion online. Urun had at least two dozen contracts with local agencies to track online trends, coordinate censorship activity and manage fake social media accounts for posting comments.

As per the report, Urun softwares gave the government workers a platform to quickly add ‘likes’ to posts and assign specific tasks for commentators. The software would also track completed tasks and calculate money to be paid to the worker.

One of the documents said that original work with over 400 characters would fetch about 25 USD while flagging a negative comment that needs to be deleted would earn a worker 40 cents. Reposts would get them 1 cent. Urun made apps which would assign work and the individual would need to post screenshot of the task completed to certify that they completed the task.

Urun also developed video-game like softwares to train commentators. Users would be split into two and they would be then pit against one another to see who produces more posts. Government officials also used Urun software to scan the Chinese internet for keywords like “virus” and “pneumonia” in conjunction with place names, according to company data.

The report states that after the initial chatter surrounding the coronavirus died down, CAC returned to monitoring other things. However, towards May, confidential analysis of public opinion had been published online. This is when the agency decided to purge internal reports. Especially the ones which contained analysis of sentiment around the pandemic.

It is shocking how the Chinese CCP has managed to manipulate the online discourse as the world fought the pandemic.

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