The coronavirus is the first true social-media “infodemic”


Similar levels of discrimination have been reported (link in Chinese) in China against people from Wuhan and the larger Hubei province. In some cases, those who are stranded because they were traveling during the lockdown are being denied hotel rooms once their national IDs reveal their hometowns.

But as much as social media has perpetuated disinformation, it has been an important source of verified information as well. Journalists around the world have used Chinese social media to gain a more accurate picture of the situation and gathered and archived (link in Chinese) verified reports for posterity. The volume of personal anecdotes and reports that circulate every day about the ground truth in China has also pressured the government to release more accurate information about the crisis.

In the early days, for example, several doctors took to social media to raise alarms about the severity of the situation. Though the government swiftly reprimanded them and moved to control the flow of information, their warnings went viral, likely accelerating the government to be more forthcoming about the reality. Later, when one of the doctors, Li Wenliang died from the sickness, Chinese platforms lit up with an outpouring of anguish and rage, questioning the government’s decision and authority. The discontent was so pervasive that it thwarted censors. 

Such social-media activity could also be mined in the future to catch and track future disease outbreaks. Several services are already using these techniques to help public health officials monitor the coronavirus’s progression. Raina MacIntyre, a biosecurity expert at the University of New South Wales, published an article in January in the journal Epidemiology that found that hot spots of tweets could be good indicators of how a disease spreads. “Especially where there is censorship or lack of resources for disease reporting,” she says, this could help organizations react even earlier during a viral outbreak, stopping them before they become global health emergencies.

In a strange way, social media has also become a space for collective grieving. On Weibo and WeChat, stories of despair and kindness abound. Alongside expressions of fear from people stuck in quarantine and from patients unable to receive treatment are also anecdotes of people donating (link in Chinese), volunteering, and helping one another in unexpected and generous ways.

“Those personal stories—you don’t read them a lot in international coverage of the outbreak,” says Shen Lu, a journalist based in Boston who has been following Chinese social-media activity around the coronavirus closely. But they have become an important way for people to follow the crisis both within and outside China, serving as a form of catharsis and giving people, amid all the panic and toxicity, a small ray of hope.





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