How Social Media Amplifies Misinformation More Than Information

Not surprising but useful studyÈ

It is well known that social media amplifies misinformation and other harmful content. The Integrity Institute, an advocacy group, is now trying to measure exactly how much — and on Thursday it began publishing results that it plans to update each week through the midterm elections on Nov. 8.

The institute’s initial report, posted online, found that a “well-crafted lie” will get more engagements than typical, truthful content and that some features of social media sites and their algorithms contribute to the spread of misinformation.

Twitter, the analysis showed, has what the institute called the great misinformation amplification factor, in large part because of its feature allowing people to share, or “retweet,” posts easily. It was followed by TikTok, the Chinese-owned video site, which uses machine-learning models to predict engagement and make recommendations to users.

“We see a difference for each platform because each platform has different mechanisms for virality on it,” said Jeff Allen, a former integrity officer at Facebook and a founder and the chief research officer at the Integrity Institute. “The more mechanisms there are for virality on the platform, the more we see misinformation getting additional distribution.”

The institute calculated its findings by comparing posts that members of the International Fact-Checking Network have identified as false with the engagement of previous posts that were not flagged from the same accounts. It analyzed nearly 600 fact-checked posts in September on a variety of subjects, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the upcoming elections.

Facebook, according to the sample that the institute has studied so far, had the most instances of misinformation but amplified such claims to a lesser degree, in part because sharing posts requires more steps. But some of its newer features are more prone to amplify misinformation, the institute found.

Facebook’s amplification factor of video content alone is closer to TikTok’s, the institute found. That’s because the platform’s Reels and Facebook Watch, which are video features, “both rely heavily on algorithmic content recommendations” based on engagements, according to the institute’s calculations.

Instagram, which like Facebook is owned by Meta, had the lowest amplification rate. There was not yet sufficient data to make a statistically significant estimate for YouTube, according to the institute.

The institute plans to update its findings to track how the amplification fluctuates, especially as the midterm elections near. Misinformation, the institute’s report said, is much more likely to be shared than merely factual content.

“Amplification of misinformation can rise around critical events if misinformation narratives take hold,” the report said. “It can also fall, if platforms implement design changes around the event that reduce the spread of misinformation.”

Source: How Social Media Amplifies Misinformation More Than Information

Google Finds ‘Inoculating’ People Against Misinformation Helps Blunt Its Power

Interesting. Worth checking out the videos:

In the fight against online misinformation, falsehoods have key advantages: They crop up fast and spread at the speed of electrons, and there is a lag period before fact checkers can debunk them.

So researchers at Google, the University of Cambridge and the University of Bristol tested a different approach that tries to undermine misinformation before people see it. They call it “pre-bunking.”

The researchers found that psychologically “inoculating” internet users against lies and conspiracy theories — by pre-emptively showing them videos about the tactics behind misinformation — made people more skeptical of falsehoods afterward, according to an academic paper published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday. But effective educational tools still may not be enough to reach people with hardened political beliefs, the researchers found.

Since Russia spread disinformation on Facebook during the 2016 election, major technology companies have struggled to balance concerns about censorship with fighting online lies and conspiracy theories. Despite an array of attempts by the companies to address the problem, it is still largely up to users to differentiate between fact and fiction.

The strategies and tools being deployed during the midterm vote in the United States this year by FacebookTikTok and other companies often resemble tactics developed to deal with misinformation in past elections: partnerships with fact-checking groups, warning labels, portals with vetted explainers as well as post removal and user bans.

Social media platforms have made attempts to pre-bunk before, though those efforts have done little to slow the spread of false information. Most have also not been as detailed — or as entertaining — as the videos used in the studies by the researchers.

Twitter said this month that it would try to “enable healthy civic conversation” during the midterm elections in part by reviving pop-up warnings, which it used during the 2020 election. Warnings, written in multiple languages, will appear as prompts placed atop users’ feeds and in searches for certain topics.

The new paper details seven experiments with almost 30,000 total participants. The researchers bought YouTube ad space to show users in the United States 90-second animated videos aiming to teach them about propaganda tropes and manipulation techniques. A million adults watched one of the ads for 30 seconds or longer.

The users were taught about tactics such as scapegoating and deliberate incoherence, or the use of conflicting explanations to assert that something is true, so that they could spot lies. Researchers tested some participants within 24 hours of seeing a pre-bunk video and found a 5 percent increase in their ability to recognize misinformation techniques.

One video opens with a mournful piano tune and a little girl grasping a teddy bear, as a narrator says, “What happens next will make you tear up.” Then the narrator explains that emotional content compels people to pay more attention than they otherwise would, and that fear-mongering and appeals to outrage are keys to spreading moral and political ideas on social media.

The video offers examples, such as headlines that describe a “horrific” accident instead of a “serious” one, before reminding viewers that if something they see makes them angry, “someone may be pulling your strings.”

Beth Goldberg, one of the paper’s authors and the head of research and development at Jigsaw, a technology incubator within Google, said in an interview that pre-bunking leaned into people’s innate desire to not be duped.

“This is one of the few misinformation interventions that I’ve seen at least that has worked not just across the conspiratorial spectrum but across the political spectrum,” Ms. Goldberg said.

Jigsaw will start a pre-bunking ad campaign on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok at the end of August for users in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, meant to head off fear-mongering about Ukrainian refugees who entered those countries after Russia invaded Ukraine. It will be done in concert with local fact checkers, academics and disinformation experts.

The researchers don’t have plans for similar pre-bunking videos ahead of the midterm elections in the United States, but they are hoping other tech companies and civil groups will use their research as a template for addressing misinformation.

However, pre-bunking is not a silver bullet. The tactic was not effective on people with extreme views, such as white supremacists, Ms. Goldberg said. She added that elections were tricky to pre-bunk because people had such entrenched beliefs. The effects of pre-bunking last for only between a few days and a month.

Groups focused on information literacy and fact-checking have employed various pre-bunking strategies, such as a misinformation-identifying curriculum delivered over two weeks of texts, or lists of bullet points with tips such as “identify the author” and “check your biases.” Online games with names like Cranky Uncle, Harmony Square, Troll Factory and Go Viral try to build players’ cognitive resistance to bot armies, emotional manipulation, science denial and vaccine falsehoods.

A study conducted in 2020 by researchers at the University of Cambridge and at Uppsala University in Sweden found that people who played the online game Bad News learned to recognize common misinformation strategies across cultures. Players in the simulation were tasked with amassing as many followers as possible and maintaining credibility while they spread fake news.

The researchers wrote that pre-bunking worked like medical immunization: “Pre-emptively warning and exposing people to weakened doses of misinformation can cultivate ‘mental antibodies’ against fake news.”

Tech companies, academics and nongovernmental organizations fighting misinformation have the disadvantage of never knowing what lie will spread next. But Prof. Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol, a co-author of Wednesday’s paper, said propaganda and lies were predictable, nearly always created from the same playbook.

“Fact checkers can only rebut a fraction of the falsehoods circulating online,” Mr. Lewandowsky said in a statement. “We need to teach people to recognize the misinformation playbook, so they understand when they are being misled.”

Source: Google Finds ‘Inoculating’ People Against Misinformation Helps Blunt Its Power

Dwivedi: The politics of rage and disinformation — we ignore it at our peril

A warning against complacency:

From 2016 to 2020, I hosted a morning show on a Toronto talk radio station.

Very soon into the gig, a rather discernable and then predictable pattern emerged: other hosts on the station would promote baseless conspiracy theories or blatant misinformation, such as Justin Trudeau being a George Soros-controlled globalist or that a non-binding motion to condemn Islamophobia would criminalize all criticism of Islam. Then, when the morning show didn’t abide by the same rhetoric, I would see a huge uptick in the volume and vitriol in my email inbox.

One of the more graphic rape threats I received during that time made a reference to burning off my clitoris once I had been gang raped. That morning, I had corrected a false notion circulating in conservative circles, and being bolstered by colleagues at the station, that Canada signing onto the UN Global Compact for Migration would mean Canada would no longer have jurisdiction over its borders or have sovereignty in determining its immigration targets.

It has now been documented that there was a co-ordinated campaign to poison the discourse around the compact by pushing misinformation specifically on the issues of immigration and borders. And it worked. Conservatives in Canada repeated the campaign’s unsubstantiated talking points and worldwide, debate over the compact reached such a pitch, the coalition government in Belgium effectively collapsed.

Misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories don’t exist in a vacuum, nor do they only live online. They spill out into the real world and impact very real people. And when misinformation, disinformation or conspiracy theories target groups of people already on the receiving end of hate, unsurprisingly, the hate experienced by those groups tends to increase.

In the aftermath of the last federal election, one thing that became abundantly clear was that much of our legacy political media seemed either unwilling or unable to report on the very real threat posed by politicians who use misinformation and conspiracy theories as part of their political shtick to appeal to voters.

The People’s Party of Canada (PPC) garnered just over 800 000 votes in the 2021 election, more than double its vote share in the 2019 election. Certainly, not every single PPC voter is an avowed white supremacist, but there were clear ties between the PPC and extremist groups that went largely ignored by legacy media. For example, columns and news coverage alike failed to acknowledge the PPC riding president charged for throwing gravel at the prime minister on the 2021 campaign trail had well-established, explicit ties to the white nationalist movement.

Instead of engaging in substantive discourse on the information ecosystem and political environment that allowed Maxime Bernier, a Harper-era cabinet minister and near-leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, to descend into a conspiracy theory-pushing zealot, our political chattering classes chose instead to focus on righteous indignation, decrying the import of American-style politics into our Canadian sphere.

Then came the “freedom convoy.” Suddenly, white journalists were regularly on the receiving end of deranged diatribes and threats of violence for reporting basic facts, akin to what their Jewish, Muslim, and BIPOC colleagues had experienced for years. There was a glimmer of hope that we’d collectively start to take these issues more seriously.

That was, however, short-lived as the bulk of legacy political media reverted to their natural resting state of being wilfully blind to the conspiracy theory-laden rage in this country and the politicians who encourage it, all under the guise of objectivity coupled with a healthy dose of normalcy bias.

Bernier has been unable to secure a single seat for his party in the last two federal elections, and so it’s easy to write him and the PPC off as having been wholly rejected by the Canadian electorate.

It will become much harder to do that once Pierre Poilievre officially leads the Conservative Party of Canada in September. Poilievre is an enthusiastic and unapologetic peddler of conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum. As both NDP MP Charlie Angus and CPC MP Michelle Rempel Garner have noted, there is a very real danger in mainstreaming conspiracy theories about a secret elite cabal controlling the country.

There are plenty of fundamentally good and decent Conservatives out there, both inside and outside the official party apparatus, who are uncomfortable with the direction their party is taking. However, there is no indication that a CPC with Poilievre at the helm will feel the need to temper its rhetoric. The party will effectively become a better funded, more organized, more mainstream version of Bernier’s PPC.

It’s easy and even tempting to scoff at that notion. But that is being purposefully ignorant to what has happened to conservatism in a lot of places, including right here. When Conservatives point out Poilievre is the best-placed person to lead the party, they’re not wrong. He very much embodies the modern-day CPC core base: angry, aggrieved, and willing to say anything so long as it dunks on Libs in the process.

The revelations from the Jan. 6 committee hearings in the U.S. should serve as a stark warning to Canadians as to what happens when conspiracy theories and disinformation become mainstreamed by the political establishment. Downplaying or even placating this type of rhetoric poses a fundamental danger to democracy itself. The sooner Canada realizes this, the better off we’ll be.

In the meantime, I look forward to Canadian columnists telling us that we should consider ourselves lucky that we’re not in the same boat as the Americans. After all, our conservatives only actively cheered on and supported the people who were trying to subvert Canadian democracy, they didn’t actually try to subvert it themselves.

Supriya Dwivedi is the director of policy and engagement at the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University and is senior counsel for Enterprise Canada.

Source: The politics of rage and disinformation — we ignore it at our peril

How vaccination status might predict views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Of note. Too much watching Fox News or sites like Rebel Media and “True” North?

Unvaccinated Canadians are about 12 times more likely than those who received three doses to believe Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was justified, according to a new survey by national polling firm EKOS.

The poll found 26 per cent of those who identified as unvaccinated agreed the Russian invasion is justified, with another 35 per cent not offering an opinion. This compared to only two per cent of surveyed Canadians who said they had three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and who supported the attack, and four per cent who offered no view.

EKOS president Frank Graves said vaccination status strongly predicts views on the war, from seizing the property of Russian oligarchs to providing non-military aid to Ukraine. In each case, a vast majority of vaccinated Canadians agreed with measures to help Ukraine and oppose Russia, a view held by only a small minority of unvaccinated people.

Torstar was granted access to results of the EKOS data that show a correlation between vaccination status and attitudes toward a host of political issues, including the war in Ukraine.

The EKOS survey — conducted from March 9 to March 13 and using a random sample of 1,035 Canadians — concludes that a “plurality of vaccine refusers are much more sympathetic to Russia.” The survey has a reported margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Ten per cent of those surveyed, or about 105 people, identified as being unvaccinated. National vaccination statistics show around 11 per cent of Canadians five and up have not received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Of those Canadians who received three doses of COVID-19 vaccine, the study found 82 per cent agreed with imposing tougher sanctions on Russia even if it meant higher fuel and food prices at home. Only 18 per cent of unvaccinated people concurred.

Eighty-five per cent of vaccinated people agree the country should take in Ukrainian refugees versus 30 per cent of unvaccinated Canadians.

While 88 per cent of vaccinated Canadians agree Russia is committing war crimes during the widely condemned invasion, 32 per cent of unvaccinated people do.

The study concludes the results point “to the highly corrosive influences of disinformation.”

“This is definitely a new and bluntly insidious force that’s contributing to polarization and disinformation and poor decision-making. And it doesn’t seem to be going away. Things are getting worse,” said Graves. “I don’t think this is because those people had an ingrained sympathy to the Russians. They’re reading this online, they’re consuming this from the same sources that were giving them the anti-vax stuff.”

The EKOS survey comes out at a time when some of the loudest anti-vaccine voicesthat supported the Ottawa occupation are pushing disinformation about the Ukraine war over social media channels that reach tens of thousands of people.

The Line Canada — its distinctive flag, depicting a red line through a black circle, visible during the Ottawa protest — tweeted unsubstantiated allegations Tuesday that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a “lunatic” courting a world war and Ukraine is producing illegal bioweapons. Awake Canada, a self-described “civil rights” group that opposes pandemic mandates and has more than 116,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, compares NATO to Nazi Germany, while No More Lockdowns — the anti-COVID-mandate group associated with its de facto leader MPP Randy Hillier — pushed the conspiracy that the invasion is an attempt to stop a new world order.

“I saw it almost immediately, within days of the invasion, people supporting it and some quite stridently,” said Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta who has studied the rise and spread of conspiracy theories. “It was pro-Russia, pro-Putin, it was the same kind of dogmatic language you heard from the anti-vaxxers about the alleged harms associated with vaccines. And it was almost immediate and it was from the same crowd.”

Some of that amplification is also coming from Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, who has been a prominent figure at anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine rallies, as well as the Ottawa protest.

Bernier tweeted that he deplores the invasion but also shared on Twitter a March 3 video by Whitby PPC candidate Thomas Androvic, who said Putin was “doing us a favour” by invading Ukraine, and the country is a “money laundering industry” and “Trudeau is in on it.” Androvic did not respond by deadline.

Bernier told his 185,000 Twitter followers to watch the video, which he called “a very interesting analysis of the situation in Ukraine.”

The EKOS survey compares vaccination status with political attitudes on the pandemic, vaccines, government trust and the war to create what Graves called a “disinformation index” to better understand the influence of disinformation in Canada.

Graves said those with three vaccine doses rejected disinformation about vaccines, supported public health measures including vaccine passports, and expressed support for Ukraine.

He said the survey shows that with fewer doses, acceptance of disinformation grows, as does sympathy for the Russian invasion.

Unvaccinated Canadians are also more likely to have a profound distrust of government, science and professional health experts, Graves said, and are more likely to support the protest convoy that occupied Ottawa for nearly a month.

“So the pattern was really clear that disinformation was not just a curious feature. It was, I think, a causal ingredient of vaccine resistance.”

The population of unvaccinated Canadians is relatively small. Around 85 per cent of Canadians five years old and older have at least two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, according to federal data. Nearly half of Canadians 18 and older have received their booster.

But in recent years, the politically active elements of the anti-vaccine and anti-mandate community have proven to be adept at networking, organizing and fundraising through social media, said Stephanie Carvin, a national security expert from Carleton University. Millions of dollars were raised through crowdfunding for the Ottawa occupation, although much of that money is frozen as court cases and criminal investigations proceed.

“They aren’t going anywhere anytime soon,” said Carvin.

That organizational capacity may be attractive to mainstream politicians looking for support in tight election races, although wooing those sympathetic to Putin may carry its own political price.

“The convoy movement is going to have a long-term impact on Canadian political life, I think,” said Carvin.

Source: How vaccination status might predict views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Social Media Platforms Claim Moderation Will Reduce Harassment, Disinformation and Conspiracies. It Won’t

Harsh but accurate:

If the United States wants to protect democracy and public health, it must acknowledge that internet platforms are causing great harm and accept that executives like Mark Zuckerberg are not sincere in their promises to do better. The “solutions” Facebook and others have proposed will not work. They are meant to distract us.

The news in the last weeks highlighted both the good and bad of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The good: Graphic videos of police brutality from multiple cities transformed public sentiment about race, creating a potential movement for addressing an issue that has plagued the country since its founding. Peaceful protesters leveraged social platforms to get their message across, outcompeting the minority that advocated for violent tactics. The bad: waves of disinformation from politicians, police departments, Fox News, and others denied the reality of police brutality, overstated the role of looters in protests, and warned of busloads of antifa radicals. Only a month ago, critics exposed the role of internet platforms in undermining the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic by amplifying health disinformation. That disinformation convinced millions that face masks and social distancing were culture war issues, rather than public health guidance that would enable the economy to reopen safely.

The internet platforms have worked hard to minimize the perception of harm from their business. When faced with a challenge that they cannot deny or deflect, their response is always an apology and a promise to do better. In the case of Facebook, University of North Carolina Scholar Zeynep Tufekci coined the term “Zuckerberg’s 14-year apology tour.” If challenged to offer a roadmap, tech CEOs leverage the opaque nature of their platforms to create the illusion of progress, while minimizing the impact of the proposed solution on business practices. Despite many disclosures of harm, beginning with their role in undermining the integrity of the 2016 election, these platforms continue to be successful at framing the issues in a favorable light.

When pressured to reduce targeted harassment, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, the platforms frame the solution in terms of content moderation, implying there are no other options. Despite several waves of loudly promoted investments in artificial intelligence and human moderators, no platform has been successful at limiting the harm from third party content. When faced with public pressure to remove harmful content, internet platforms refuse to address root causes, which means old problems never go away, even as new ones develop. For example, banning Alex Jones removed conspiracy theories from the major sites, but did nothing to stop the flood of similar content from other people.

The platforms respond to each new public relations challenge with an apology, another promise, and sometimes an increased investment in moderation. They have done it so many times I have lost track. And yet, policy makers and journalists continue to largely let them get away with it.

We need to recognize that internet platforms are experts in human attention. They know how to distract us. They know we will eventually get bored and move on.

Despite copious evidence to the contrary, too many policy makers and journalists behave as if internet platforms will eventually reduce the harm from targeted harassment, disinformation, and conspiracies through content moderation. There are three reasons why it will not do so: scale, latency, and intent. These platforms are huge. In the most recent quarter, Facebook reported that 1.7 billion people use its main platform every day and roughly 2.3 billion across its four large platforms. They do not disclose the numbers of messages posted each day, but it is likely to be in the hundreds of millions, if not a billion or more, just on Facebook. Substantial investments in artificial intelligence and human moderators cannot prevent millions of harmful messages from getting through.

The second hurdle is latency, which describes the time it takes for moderation to identify and remove a harmful message. AI works rapidly, but humans can take minutes or days. This means a large number of messages will circulate for some time before eventually being removed. Harm will occur in that interval. It is tempting to imagine that AI can solve everything, but that is a long way off. AI systems are built on data sets from older systems, and they are not yet capable of interpreting nuanced content like hate speech.

The final – and most important – obstacle for content moderation is intent. The sad truth is that the content we have asked internet platforms to remove is exceptionally valuable and they do not want to remove it. As a result, the rules for AI and human moderators are designed to approve as much content as possible. Alone among the three issues with moderation, intent can only be addressed with regulation.

A permissive approach to content has two huge benefits for platforms: profits and power. The business model of internet platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter is based on advertising, the value of which depends on consumer attention. Where traditional media properties create content for mass audiences, internet platforms optimize content for each user individually, using surveillance to enable exceptionally precise targeting. Advertisers are addicted to the precision and convenience offered by internet platforms. Every year, they shift an ever larger percentage of their spending to them, from which platforms derive massive profits and wealth. Limiting the amplification of targeted harassment, disinformation, and conspiracy theories would lower engagement and revenues.

Power, in the form of political influence, is an essential component of success for the largest internet platforms. They are ubiquitous, which makes them vulnerable to politics. Tight alignment with the powerful ensures success in every country, which leads platforms to support authoritarians, including ones who violate human rights. For example, Facebook has enabled regime-aligned genocide in Myanmar and state-sponsored repression in Cambodia and the Philippines. In the United States, Facebook and other platforms have ignored or altered their terms of service to enable Trump and his allies to use the platform in ways that would normally be prohibited. For example, when journalists exposed Trump campaign ads that violated Facebook’s terms of service with falsehoods, Facebook changed its terms of service, rather than pulling the ads. In addition, Facebook chose not to follow Twitter’s lead in placing a public safety warning on a Trump post that promised violence in the event of looting.

Thanks to their exceptional targeting, platforms play an essential role in campaign fundraising and communications for candidates of both parties. While the dollars are not meaningful to the platforms, they derive power and influence from playing an essential role in electoral politics. This is particularly true for Facebook.

At present, platforms have no liability for the harms caused by their business model. Their algorithms will continue to amplify harmful content until there is an economic incentive to do otherwise. The solution is for Congress to change incentives by implementing an exception to the safe harbor of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for algorithm amplification of harmful content and guaranteeing a right to litigate against platforms for this harm. This solution does not impinge on first amendment rights, as platforms are free to continue their existing business practices, except with liability for harms.

Thanks to COVID-19 and the protest marches, consumers and policy makers are far more aware of the role that internet platforms play in amplifying disinformation. For the first time in a generation, there is support in both parties in Congress for revisions to Section 230. There is increasing public support for regulation.

We do not need to accept disinformation as the cost of access to internet platforms. Harmful amplification is the result of business choices that can be changed. It is up to us and to our elected representatives to make that happen. The pandemic and the social justice protests underscore the urgency of doing so.

Source: Social Media Platforms Claim Moderation Will Reduce Harassment, Disinformation and Conspiracies. It Won’t

ICYMI: With Selective Coronavirus Coverage, China Builds a Culture of Hate

Of note:

Trevor Noah, the host of “The Daily Show,” has won praise on the Chinese internet for his searing criticism of the Trump administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. So has Jerry Kowal, an American who makes Chinese-language videos chronicling the dire situation in New York.

China’s response to the virus has its own sharp-eyed critics at home, and they have found a vastly different reception. One resident of the virus-struck city of Wuhan who writes under the name Fang Fang documented despair, misery and everyday life in an online diary, and has endured withering attacks on social media. Three citizen journalists who posted videos from Wuhan in the first weeks of the outbreak disappeared and are widely believed to be in government custody.

The pandemic unfolded dramatically differently in China from the way it has in the rest of the world — at least, if one believes state-run Chinese media. Chinese news outlets used words like “purgatory” and “apocalypse” to describe the tragic hospital scenes in Italy and Spain. They have run photos of British and American medical workers wearing garbage bags as protective gear.

A lot of the same miseries happened in China, but those reports were called “rumors” and censored.

For the Communist Party, keeping up a positive image for the Chinese public has long been an important part of maintaining its legitimacy. That facade was broken during the outbreak in late January and February, as dying patients flooded hospitals and medical workers begged for protective gear on social media. Some people started asking why the government suppressed information early on and who should be held accountable.

The death of Li Wenliang, the whistle-blowing doctor in Wuhan, on Feb. 6 galvanized many Chinese people into demanding freedom of speech. Online sentiment became much more skeptical, and many young people openly challenged the party’s message.

Then the United States and other countries bungled their own responses, and China’s propaganda machine saw an opportunity.

Using the West’s transparency and free flow of information, state media outlets chronicled how badly others have managed the crisis. Their message: Those countries should copy China’s model. For good measure, the propaganda machine revved up its attacks on anybody who dared to question the government’s handling of the pandemic.

For many people in China, the push is working. Wielding a mix of lies and partial truths, some young people are waging online attacks against individuals and countries that contradict their belief in China’s superior response.

These tactics aren’t new. Many Chinese children of my generation read a newspaper column for students called “Socialism Is Good. Capitalism Is Bad.” Each week, it described the wonders of China alongside the hardships of capitalist societies. The lesson: Socialist China takes care of its people, while people in the United States go hungry and the elderly die alone.

Even if the stories were true, they didn’t represent the full picture. Chinese children like me pitied Americans even when almost all of China lived in poverty. How much would we have envied them if we had known that most could eat meat whenever they liked?

Such campaigns became much easier to sell when China’s economy took off, and we could see the country’s progress for ourselves.

Now that mission is getting tougher. Even before the pandemic, China’s economy wasn’t growing the way it once had, and the government has been intruding more and more into everyday life. China’s propaganda machine has ramped up the volume to deliver its message, encompassing all of Chinese official media and the country’s social media platforms.

If that newspaper column existed today, it would be called “China Is Great. Whoever Says Otherwise Is Our Enemy.” And it would be impossible to avoid.

The website of Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, added Chinese subtitles to a video from Mr. Noah’s show that featured President Trump and many Fox News personalities, showing how for weeks they played down the risks of the coronavirus.

The subtitled video was widely distributed by Chinese official news outlets. Many of them used the same headline: “Blood is on their hands and they should all be sued!”

The Chinese official media and online commenters loved Mr. Noah even more after Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist, said on his show that the ebbing of cases in China was “very good news.” Global Times subtitled a clip of the praise, which has been viewed nearly 18 million times and liked a quarter of million times on the tabloid’s official account on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform.

“Trevor has the correct value system,” said a comment on a social media article that not only posted the video but translated many angry comments by American viewers. “I love this guy,” another reader commented in English.

“Is he ‘kissing the ass’ of China?” another social media blog postasked rhetorically. “No, he’s just telling the truth.”

Many of the same people praising Mr. Noah have been slinging arrows and rocks at Fang Fang, whose real name is Wang Fang, for telling the truth about China.

Her diary was moderate and personal, and a place where many of us turned for comfort during the darkest hours of China’s epidemic. But after Harper Collins announced plans to publish it in English, tens of thousands of online users descended on her Weibo account, saying she was a traitor for supporting the enemy’s narrative.

In a commentary, Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, wrote that Fang Fang’s diary would be used by political forces abroad and that the Chinese people might have to “pay the price for Fang Fang’s fame in the West.”

The online backlash has been so severe, Fang Fang wrote on Weibo, that it reminds her of the Cultural Revolution, the decade of political violence and chaos that she saw as a child. The only comfort, she wrote, is that “this type of Cultural Revolution is only conducted in cyberspace.”

More obscure people have also been subjected to hate. A woman in Wuhan who lost her daughter received what she described as a “Fang Fang-scale online attack” after she shared her grief on the internet and questioned whether the tragedy could have been avoided.

One user, who claimed to be a Wuhan resident, too, reprimanded her. “You can only represent the 1 percent who are dead,” the user wrote. “You can’t represent Wuhan. Do not disturb the 99 percent of us who are enjoying life.”

State-run media stands ready to elevate those who reinforce Beijing’s message.

Mr. Kowal, the American video blogger, won millions of views on Bilibili, a video site popular among young Chinese people, for his virus-related content out of New York. His videos also got him a 50-minute live appearance on China Central Television, the state broadcaster, to talk about the field hospital in Central Park and the shortage of personal protective equipment.

But such messages aren’t welcome when they’re about China. Three of Mr. Kowal’s Chinese counterparts, Chen Qiushi, Fang Binand Li Zehua, had tried to do the same thing in Wuhan during the peak of the outbreak. Their videos can’t be found online in China; they were able to upload their videos only to YouTube, which is blocked in the country. All three men have since vanished.

In his last video, which streamed his four-hour standoff with the state police outside his door, Mr. Li, a former CCTV anchor, compared young Chinese people to the protagonist in “The Truman Show,” the Jim Carrey movie in which the title character’s whole life is a lie.

But the lie they are living in is worse, because it is fueled by hatred. A generation of people is learning to hate not only people like Fang Fang but foreigners as well.

After Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, was admitted into intensive care with Covid-19, mocking comments from Weibo users — like “Can I laugh?” — received thousands of likes. When the United States surpassed China as the country with the most confirmed infections, many Chinese commenters gloated, “Congratulations!”

Gauging real sentiment in an authoritarian society is impossible. But the belligerent online environment has made many people uneasy.

Cui Yongyuan, a well-known former talk show host, in a recent article compared the online warriors to the fighters in the anti-foreigner, anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

“There are more and more Boxers online,” he wrote. “The Qing dynasty became the enemy of the world because of the Boxers’ evil behavior. One need not look far for a lesson.”

COVID-19: China tries to heal its coronavirus-hit image, but plan backfiring in the West

Good account:

As China in March became the first major country to recover from the coronavirus outbreak that spread from the central city of Wuhan, its officials kicked off another campaign: to heal its tattered international image.

President Xi Jinping held a flurry of phone calls with world leaders to promise aid. More than 170 Chinese medical experts were dispatched to Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa. State media outlets flooded the Internet with photos of Chinese masks arriving in 100 countries and stories questioning the epidemic’s origins. Ambassadors flooded international newspapers with op-eds hailing the sacrifices Beijing made to buy time for other countries without acknowledging how the outbreak erupted in the first place.

One month later, that campaign has yielded mixed results. In many cases, it has outright backfired.

In Britain, a parliamentary committee on foreign relations urged the government to fight a surge in Chinese disinformation. Officials in Germany and at least one state – Wisconsin – exposed quiet outreach attempts from Chinese officials hoping to persuade them to publicly praise China.

In Spain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, governments announced recalls of Chinese masks and testing kits after large batches were found to be defective, undercutting what China sought to portray as goodwill gestures. In Nigeria, the country’s professional medical association slammed a government decision to invite a team of Chinese doctors, going as far as claiming that they might carry the disease with them.

And on Twitter, Chinese diplomats have not only spread China’s message but gone on the counterattack. They publicly feuded with the Brazilian president’s son and his education minister, who accused Beijing of seeking “world domination” by controlling protective-equipment supplies. They tangled with Iran’s Health Ministry spokesman, who questioned the accuracy of Chinese epidemic data, and lashed out at a Sri Lankan businessman who criticized China’s epidemic response.

The wave of skepticism, sometimes from nations friendly toward China, underscores the size of the challenge facing foreign policymakers in Beijing as they look toward the post-pandemic global landscape. While governments from Washington to Brussels have been faulted for mismanaging the crisis or failing to galvanize an international response, China’s standing has taken a hit precisely at a moment when the country was positioning itself as an up-and-coming leader in world affairs.

“They know when the dust settles and people turn their eye toward whether Beijing was responsible, it’s going to be a very difficult situation,” said Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, who described China’s globe-spanning, hard-sell campaign in recent weeks as public relations “on steroids.”

“They’re trying to get ahead of that narrative” of blame, Rolland added. “It’s as much out of fear as it is confidence.”

Chinese officials have appeared frustrated by the emerging backlash to what they say is simply altruism. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said this month that China was not using coronavirus diplomacy to burnish its image or extend its influence over countries. Chinese officials have also pledged to immediately crack down on shoddy medical equipment.

“We would like to share China’s good practices and experience with other countries, but we will not turn it into any kind of geopolitical weapon or tool,” Hua said. “Leadership is not gained by boasting or jostling.”

To be certain, many countries with growing investment ties with China, particularly across Southeast Asia, have responded positively. In Serbia, a billboard reading “Thank You, Big Brother Xi” went up in the streets of Belgrade. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, a member of the Euroskeptic Five Star Movement, uploaded a Facebook video showing him receiving shipments of Chinese medical equipment.

He said the Chinese aid validated his party’s decision to distance itself from the European Union.

“Joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative saved Italian lives,” Di Maio declared, referring to Xi’s signature policy to expand Beijing’s influence through infrastructure and loan programs, in comments widely reported in Chinese state media.

In several African countries, China’s reputation was bolstered by speedy donations made by Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba.

“China led a master class in modern public diplomacy with its medical donations, leveraging a vast propaganda network that it built in Africa over the past 10 to 15 years,” said Eric Olander, co-founder of the China Africa Project.

China started to lose momentum in the “donation diplomacy” narrative after reports emerged that the quality of the masks may have been suspect, Olander added. But in the early weeks, the Chinese aid was “warmly received by the governing elites,” he said. “People were impressed.”

In many Western countries, it has not been so much China’s medical assistance that has drawn consternation, but rather Beijing’s departure from its traditional diplomacy into the realm of disinformation that had rarely been seen from China before the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

Last month, when Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian and other diplomats questioned whether the virus was brought to China by U.S. military personnel, it provoked a furious response from Washington. A disinformation watchdog agency of the European Union rejected the Chinese officials’ conspiracy theory.

After Chinese state media widely reported that a renowned Italian researcher had said the coronavirus may have originated in Italy, not Wuhan, the nephrologist Giuseppe Remuzzi spoke to Italian daily il Foglio to correct the record, saying his words had been distorted for propaganda purposes.

Zhiqun Zhu, chair of international relations at Bucknell University and author of the book “China’s New Diplomacy,” said the coronavirus has sharpened a long-standing debate within Chinese diplomatic circles: Should China wage an all-out “discourse” war to beat back critics like Trump administration officials and assert its prerogatives as a world power? Or should it present a more humble, less confrontational face?

“There is no consensus in diplomatic establishment circles,” Zhu said. “Surely some diplomats know that outside, the world blames China, that the propaganda projecting China as its savior is counterproductive. But right now, the leadership also wants to boost nationalism at home.”

Zhu said more traditional-minded Chinese diplomats, including the long-serving ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, have sought to tamp down the spread of fringe theories and the bureaucracy’s most combative impulses. In a couched essay in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper this month, another senior official, former vice foreign minister Fu Ying, said Chinese diplomats should uphold “the spirit of humility and tolerance, and adhere to communication, learning, and openness.”

Chinese intellectuals have also worried about their country’s deteriorating image under the current diplomatic tack. A drumbeat has grown from conservative politicians in both the United States and Britain to demand economic reparations from China, although it’s not clear whether such an effort would succeed in international court.

In widely distributed essays, leading economist Hua Sheng warned China against spreading conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus or “gloating” when other countries were still struggling to overcome the pandemic. He urged China to have the courage to conduct an accounting of what went wrong in Wuhan.

“Some people say if we investigate our country’s culpability, we would be giving evidence to outsiders and give them a tool to hurt our national interests,” Hua wrote. “I must say, it’s precisely the opposite.”

Lucrezia Poggetti, a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, said China’s internal dynamics and the emphasis on saving face for the domestic population meant it was highly unlikely that the government would thoroughly admit fault or show weakness on the international stage.

But even if Chinese diplomats successfully manage the near-term public relations crisis, they might struggle to counter the longer-term trends already set in motion by the pandemic. As an example, Poggetti said, European countries – including France, Germany and Britain – and the United States and Japan are reassessing their dependence on China for critical health and national security-related supplies.

“There will be a reckoning after the pandemic ends,” she said.

China’s COVID-19 disinformation push, aided by Canadian group, raises concerns about next pandemic

More on Chinese government disinformation efforts:

It’s safe to say China’s foreign ministry does not often pay much attention to obscure Canadian research organizations run by conspiracy theorists.

But earlier this month the ministry’s spokesman tweeted in English not once but three times about two surprising articles from the Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalisation.

“This is so astonishing that it changed many things I used to believe in,” Lijian Zhao wrote to 500,000 followers on a social-media platform his fellow Chinese are banned from using. “Please retweet to let more people know about it.”

The “astonishing” piece suggested that COVID-19 did not originate in Wuhan, China, as Chinese and other scientists have reported, but was brought to Wuhan by American soldiers last November.

This is so astonishing

Despite the dubious source, Zhao tweeted about another article on the institute’s website — a hotbed of 911-deniers and champions of Vladimir Putin’s worldview — and then tweeted “it might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent!”.

Beijing and its media outlets did not stop there. They’ve also suggested recently the virus might have originated in Italy, and that a Wuhan doctor arrested after raising the alarm about the new virus — only to later die from it — was a Communist Party hero, not an inconvenient whistleblower silenced by the state.

Only a couple of months ago, China was pilloried for initially covering up and then underplaying the newly emerging coronavirus.

But as it emerges from a strict lockdown and claims to have snuffed out local transmission of COVID-19, the regime is casting the pandemic in a dramatically new light. It’s one that reflects brightly on the government of President Xi Jinping — and raises worrisome questions about the likelihood of China making changes that might prevent the next pandemic.

“The Chinese Communist Party sees itself as engaged in a global competition over the narrative surrounding COVID-19, its origins and government responses,” says Julian Gewirtz, Harvard-affiliated author of Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists and the Making of Global China.

“The disinformation, the conspiracy theory peddling and the wild and unsubstantiated accusations are prime examples.”

China’s role in the beginnings of the pandemic has, of course, become political fodder in the United States, where President Donald Trump insists on ignoring the medical name of the new disease, calling it the “Chinese virus” instead.

Increased reports of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia in the U.S. have followed. China is a convenient scapegoat now that the U.S. actually has more COVID-19 cases, a soaring death toll and overwhelmed hospitals in some places.

Meanwhile, China has received widespread praise for its eventual, aggressive response to the new virus, imposing a massive quarantine around the epicenter in Wuhan that helped at least slow the virus’s spread elsewhere. Chinese scientists have also been key in isolating the pathogen and mapping out its unique qualities.

The origins of the pandemic are a complex question best left to scientists, said China’s embassy to Canada in an email response to National Post questions.

“People of the world have all witnessed that it is under the leadership of the CPC (Communist Party of China) that the Chinese people achieved independence, freedom and liberation and made enormous progress in national development,” said the mission’s statement. “It is also under the leadership of the CPC that the Chinese nation united as one and speedily fought against COVID-19, buying precious time for the global response.”

The Chinese Communist Party sees itself as engaged in a global competition over the narrative surrounding COVID-19, its origins and government responses

But beyond name-calling by the U.S. and chest-thumping by China, there are clear reasons to look toward Beijing and its part in the expanding crisis, reasons that could determine if the world faces a similar calamity in the near future.

While the precise genesis of the disease is still something of a question mark, the current consensus reflects the conclusions of a group of 34 Chinese researchers, and one Australian, in the journal Lancet late last month.

The coronavirus, like others of its type, seems to have originated in bats, then jumped to live animals sold at a market in Wuhan, the specific culprit likely being an odd beast called a pangolin, and from there to humans, their paper concluded. Microbiologist David Kelvin of Dalhousie University, who has had a longstanding collaboration with researchers in Shantou, China, agrees.

It’s not totally implausible that it might have been circulating in humans earlier somewhere else — like Italy, he said. A “sero-prevalance” study that tested banked blood samples from well before the start of the pandemic might determine if there’s anything to the theory.

But, he said, “the data right now suggest that the origins are Chinese.”

In that regard, COVID-19 has obvious parallels.

The 2003 SARS virus, to which the new virus is closely related, is thought to have originated in bats, then leapt to animals sold at live markets in China’s Guangdong province — probably the civet cat — and on to people.

The H7N9 influenza virus, which has caused a string of relatively small but deadly epidemics in China, likewise moved from bats to wild fowl and then domestic poultry bought live by consumers, Kelvin said.

Wild animal sales were ordered stopped after SARS, then re-emerged. Beijing has now banned trade in live wild animals like the pangolin for food, though apparently not for use in traditional medicine.

Live wild game sales in China and other countries must be ended completely, otherwise “we predict with confidence that COVID-19 will not be the last viral pandemic,” virologist Nathan Wolf and “Guns, Germs and Steel” author Jared Diamond wrote in a recent op-ed article.

Some want a crackdown to go further. Wet markets, generally, even if just selling domestic animals, should be closed, says Kelvin.

Meanwhile, another human factor also seemed key to the spread of COVID-19. As doctors in Wuhan first became aware in December of patients suffering a mystery pneumonia — and infecting health-care workers — some put out the word to colleagues. But then eight of them, including ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, were brought in by police and accused of spreading false rumours. Li died from COVID-19 in February.

When officials publicly acknowledged the emergence of a novel pathogen, they at first played down its seriousness, questioning whether it could be transmitted between humans. A holiday banquet of 40,000 people went ahead in Wuhan on Jan. 13.

The Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto Internet watchdog, later reported that a Chinese live-streaming platform started blocking key words related to the outbreak in late December, with broader censorship following that.

Wuhan was eventually sealed off from the world on Jan. 23, inside a cordon sanitaire of unprecedented scale. Amid the initial suppression, virus carriers had already left the transportation hub in droves. The first Canadian case, a traveller who had visited the city, surfaced Jan. 26.

The emergence of COVID-19 was at first a public-relations disaster for China, an emerging superpower keen to bolster its international influence and prestige.

Then it began trying to change the conversation, and the pandemic’s core facts.

Among the first, startling examples was Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao’s posts earlier this month.

One of the Montreal centre’s articles he tweeted about suggested that American soldiers who visited the World Military Games in Wuhan in December might have brought over the virus. Another suggested they caught the bug from a shuttered U.S. disease lab.

The centre’s website,, is replete with such conspiracy theories, including claims that Al Qaeda and the 911 attacks were an American invention, that the U.S. manipulates the weather as a potential weapon of mass destruction and vaccines are “genetic poisons.”

The website earlier came to the attention of the Latvia-based Strategic Communications Centre (StratCom), a NATO-affiliated thinktank, because of its consistent dissemination of articles reflecting Kremlin propaganda. A recent piece suggested NATO was preparing to attack Russia.

Those articles tend to reflect disinformation that was originally spread by Russian operatives. Then, to bolster the legitimacy of the dubious reports in a sort of “information laundering,” the Canadian items are quoted back by Kremlin-controlled media, Janis Sarts, StratCom’s director, said in an interview Friday.

“When Russia needs to refer to a Western source, this is typically the site that is quoted,” he said.

In a similar vein, the site’s articles on COVID-19 quote extensively from the Chinese Communist party’s Global Times, only to be later cited by a Beijing official.

For those not convinced the pandemic originated in the U.S., state-controlled media like the Global Times and CGTN have proffered another suggestion: that it began last November in Italy.

We have not seen the last Li Wenliang

But when Italian newspaper Il Foglio reached the supposed Italian source for one such report, the pharmacology professor told the outlet “it’s propaganda. The virus is from Wuhan. Science has no doubt about that.”

Then there is the reinvention of Li Wenliang’s tragic story. His death triggered an outpouring of public grief and anger at authorities “unlike anything else I can remember,” said Gerwitz.

That was before the regime claimed him as one of its own. Local police were punished for unfairly persecuting him and official organs described him as a loyal party member.

So how does all this bode for the future? If another new virus emerges within its borders, will China be more transparent, allowing public health to quickly and definitively stop the germ before it spreads? Will traditional food commerce be changed for good?

Gerwitz says all countries, and particularly his own, need to be held accountable for how they handled the pandemic, which has killed over 1,000 Americans under a president who also once downplayed its gravity.

As for China, though, he’s not overly optimistic.

Rather than make the necessary changes, Beijing may see the crisis as a reason to intensify even further its surveillance and control of the population.

“We have not seen the last Li Wenliang,” Gerwitz said of the doctor whistleblower. “The question his case raises is whether the next Li Wenliang will even have the opportunity to send that first message.”

Source: China’s COVID-19 disinformation push, aided by Canadian group, raises concerns about next pandemic