Separating fact from fiction as China fights 2nd Covid-19 wave

While official media has debunked outright falsehoods in the past two weeks, it can still be difficult to separate fact from fiction. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING - First, it was the salmon. Then, the avoidance extended to seafood in general before scientists exonerated all manner of produce from being a spreader of the coronavirus.

But the harm had been done: The US$700 million (S$972 million) industry supplying the orange-fleshed deep sea fish to China had been hard hit.

Nearly two weeks after a resurgence of coronavirus cases first surfaced at a wholesale market in south Beijing, one is still hard pressed to find salmon in the city.

After health authorities first announced that traces of the Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, had been found on a chopping board used for imported salmon, the Chinese Internet went into overdrive.

Posts ranged from those urging others not to eat raw fish to more extreme conspiracy theories suggesting how the deep sea fish, beloved by Chinese helicopter parents for its high nutritional value, could in fact carry the coronavirus.

Amid the ongoing outbreak in Beijing, where nearly 99 per cent of the 256 cases are linked to the wholesale market, there has been a barrage of information on social media platforms, while local news outlets have also been providing blow-by-blow updates, often multiple times an hour.

While official media has debunked outright falsehoods in the past two weeks, it can still be difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially when news organisations also sometimes tread into grey areas.

Take for instance the theory that the current strain circulating in the Chinese capital came from Europe.

When first floated by top epidemiologist Wu Zunyou on state television early last week, he said the strain in Beijing was similar to Europe's, leading to reports and social media posts suggesting the virus had been transmitted from the continent.

Dr Wu later clarified his comments and China released the genetic sequence of the virus late last Thursday (June 18).

"The results of preliminary genetic sequencing research show that this virus came from Europe, but is older than the viruses currently circulating in Europe," said Dr Zhang Yong, an assistant director at China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a government notice last Friday.

While official media has debunked outright falsehoods in the past two weeks, it can still be difficult to separate fact from fiction. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

But by then, there were already hundreds of thousands of posts talking about the virus' European origin, with a similar number of nationalistic and even outright racist comments along the same vein.

Curiously, China's usually careful censors left these posts alone.

Ms Sarah Cook, director of the China Media bulletin at Freedom House, said: "As tight as censorship is in China, some information can slip through, especially if cracking down on it isn't a high priority or the political implications aren't as clear or as serious as certain other kinds of content."

She noted that this is especially so in the case of breaking news, where censors have to play catch up.

Earlier this year, the authorities in Wuhan, the original outbreak epicentre, censured eight doctors for spreading false information.

These later turned out to be early warnings of the coronavirus, with one of the doctors, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, later dying from Covid-19.

Chinese netizens went through a deficit of trust, especially in the early days where information was patchy.

"How can we be sure the 'false information' is truly false?" read one comment on the Weibo platform on a post debunking a rumour last week that Beijing was running out of fresh produce.

Ultimately, the Chinese still have a fairly high level of trust in their government, said Assistant Professor Wei Wuhui of the Shanghai Jiaotong University, citing a recent poll by public relations firm Edelman on the level of trust citizens have in their governments.

"It's quite a normal phenomenon that people unwittingly spread misinformation during a crisis... but what's important too is that professional media organisations need to be responsible and not write headlines that lead to public panic," he said.

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