Misinformation about COVID-19 on Chinese social media – lessons for countering conspiracy theories


Conspiracy theories about COVID-19 have accompanied the epidemic from the start. Critical to managing the epidemic Mitigate the effects of misinformationWhich the World Health Organization called the “information epidemic”.

Conspiracy theories and disinformation are global phenomena that affect people’s perceptions of other countries, yet not much is understood about which of the COVID-19 conspiracy theories are popular on Chinese social media, how this differs from the disinformation on American social media and what lessons it holds. This is to counter universal misinformation.

Researchers who Study online media and public discourseMy colleagues and I examined conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19 and the accounts that debunked them Sina Weibo, The Chinese equivalent of Twitter and one of the major Chinese social media platforms.

We found common plots on Weibo about the origins of COVID-19 Very different from those in the United StatesAs many have claimed that the national government deliberately constructed the Coronavirus. Conspiracy leaflets attributing responsibility to the United States escalated during the Sino-American confrontations.

Surveys show that many Americans, too We believe COVID-19 conspiracy theoriesHowever, most of those conspiracy theories involved figures like Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci or alternative, unfounded explanations for the disease, such as 5G, the new high-speed wireless network technology.

A woman looks at her phone while standing in a trade show booth with a screen in Chinese.
Weibo is one of the largest social media platforms in China, with over 500 million monthly active users.
AP Photo / Andy Wong

We also found in our analysis of Chinese social media that false posts can be most effective when they come from women and influencers, who are people who have large numbers of followers on social media. Debunking publications are also most effective when you cite scholars as a source. We believe these technologies can be effective not only in China but in other countries as well.

Nationalism and International Conflict

We collected and analyzed COVID-19 posts from a group of 250 million users on Weibo From January 1 to April 30, 2020. Although conspiracy theories related to the 5G network, the fake documentary “Blandmick” and Bill Gates was prevalent in the United States, these conspiracy accounts were not popular on Weibo (4.95%). The prevailing conspiracy theories on Weibo centered around whether COVID-19 was intentionally made as a biological weapon by the United States, China, Japan, or another country.

The volume of conspiracy theories and debunked narratives rose during times of the Sino-American conflict from January to April 2020. These include cases when President Donald Trump first referred to the Coronavirus as “Chinese virusOn March 16; during several diplomatic disputes around March 25, on April 21 when Trump announced Banned Green Card To prevent people from immigrating to the United States; When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced 5G Clean Path On April 29, it required that wireless communications entering and leaving US diplomatic facilities bypass the equipment of “untrusted” telecommunications companies such as Huawei, China.

During these Sino-US confrontations, we also observed a spike in engagements that focused on blaming the US as the original source of COVID-19.

The epidemic has spread It exacerbated the global trend towards nationalism. These two forces gave rise to the National vaccineWhich could threaten the plan for global access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Meanwhile, about 78% of Americans erred in China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, According to a Pew Research Center survey.

COVID-19 is an example of how science is distorted to divide people within a country and across nations. To understand how to communicate effectively about a pandemic, it is important to consider the political contexts in which scientific and health communication occurs.

Lessons for facing the information epidemic, COVID-19

Fighting conspiracy theories is a tough battle. Scientists Telecommunications And the psychology Indicate the psychological mechanisms that cause people to reject factual information if it challenges their worldview or sense of themselves.

My colleagues and I offer three strategies for countering disinformation that can overcome these political and psychological obstacles.

First, create a constructive media environment for pollinating the public.

We suggest that political parties and the media avoid using narratives with national and political motives when communicating about the epidemic. They should produce more messages advocating shared interests and values ​​in fighting the epidemic and the information epidemic.

We also recommend that public agencies, scientists, and social media companies conduct more trials to explore the effectiveness Strategies for pollinating misinformation It can help the public to recognize and reject politically motivated conspiracy theories. To help the public become more sophisticated in processing messages, researchers and callers can give the audience a small dose of conspiracy narratives and explicitly warn about Politically motivated Behind these conspiracy theories.

Second, improving public awareness through deliberations.

We recommend that a long-term solution to combating disinformation is to develop opportunities for conversations between people of various political orientations in order to conduct constructive dialogues that will develop mutual understanding and form informed opinions. People with Deeply divided opinions They can have constructive conversations with each other. Vulnerable population groups It can enable them to participate thoughtfully with each other.

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Third, choose effective message senders and sources to correct misinformation.

We suggest that social media companies and public agencies consider actively seeking help from trusted influencers, and women who do not have a large following, to post debunking information. Information on social media competes for audience attention. Our research found that posts that came from influencers, as well as women without massive numbers of followers, and who cited other scholars or scientists, got more likes, comments, tweets, and hashtags.

The right sender and source of information is critical to increasing audience engagement and understanding of the science.

Cuihua Shen and Jingwen Zhang from the University of California, Davis; Anvan Chen from the University of Science and Technology of China; Jingbo Ming of Michigan State University contributed to this article.

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