You might have missed it during the busy, pre-Christmas football weekend, but the New York Times and Pro Publica published a massive story about the lengths to which China went in late 2019 and early 2020 to censor social media and the internet at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Times and Pro Publica obtained over 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos that were sent by Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator, which were supplied to them by a hacking group named C.C.P. Unmasked.
The C.A.C. was created by China’s leader Xi Jinping in 2014, and it reports to the Communist Party’s central committee. The Times and Pro Publica make clear that the C.A.C’s propaganda efforts were aimed not just at people within China, but about massaging the message with the international community.
When Dr. Li Wenliang, who had warned of the dangers of COVID-19, but was, per the Times, “threatened by the police and accused of peddling rumors,” died in February, social media censorship was thrown into full throttle.
This was a directive to news websites and social media platforms:
“… do not use push notifications, do not post commentary, do not stir up speculation. Safely control the fervor in online discussions, do not create hashtags, gradually remove from trending topics, strictly control harmful information.”
And this was a directive to local propaganda workers:
“We must recognize with clear mind the butterfly effect, broken windows effect and snowball effect triggered by this event, and the unprecedented challenge that it has posed to our online opinion management and control work. All Cyberspace Administration bureaus must pay heightened attention to online opinion, and resolutely control anything that seriously damages party and government credibility and attacks the political system …”
Headlines in news stories were forbidden from using the words “incurable,” “fatal,” or “lockdown.” Stories that were “negative” were not to be promoted through pop-up notifications. Local propaganda workers bragged about infiltrating private chat groups to spy on any dissent. There was a system for incentivizing workers to flag negative comments or ratchet up engagement on positive comments.
To some extent, the biggest surprise here is that the formal documents leaked and that we can now see them in their plain form. We have always known that China censors the internet, but these documents give us a glimpse at the systematic bureaucracy that is necessary to do so in a country with over a billion people.
“China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources,” Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, told the New York Times and Pro Publica. “It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale.”
Whether less censorship over the virus would have prevented or at least limited the spread worldwide is unknowable. However, reading this story, you gain a better understanding of the lengths to which American businesses like Disney, Apple and the NBA must go with their own messaging to avoid incurring the wrath of the Chinese propaganda system.