The world's best system of disinformation sits not in Moscow, but Beijing. A new leak shows how Beijing pulled on specialized software, censors, trolls, snitches, and police to exert precise control over the early narrative of the coronavirus pandemic.…
Videos that showed hospitals overrun, corpses in the streets, angry residents in lockdown were purged. Media was ordered not to call the virus fatal. Terms like lockdown were downplayed. The heroism of party officials was emphasized.
While controls were aimed primarily at a Chinese audience, officials were aware sought to use the censorship to impact opinions abroad. One directive instructed officials to “actively influence international opinion.”
As Beijing sought to acquire masks and personal protective equipment from around the world, officials downplayed information about their growing stocks of such gear, out of fear it could disrupt further efforts to get equipment from countries soon to be hit by the virus.
Officials played up the WHO praise of China, but downplayed its declaration of a global emergency. As the WHO was drawing comparisons between covid and SARS, Chinese officials banned such comparisons online.
At times officials followed best practices for a public health crisis. Instructional videos on masks/hand washing were released. Bans on ads for quack cures were enforced. Yet overwhelmingly thousands of directives were about downplaying the virus’ threat and burnishing the CCP.
It’s hard to know whether a more honest account from China would have helped the world respond better. In many cases probably not. But what’s key is Beijing believes its control over the internet is a powerful weapon, and it will continue to use it to mislead the world.
It’s worth asking whether the global community should feel comfortable about an emerging superpower so committed to misleading everyone. I have covered this for years and I was shocked at the sophistication and ingenuity plowed into manipulating the internet. A few examples:
The bureaucracy runs all the way to the district level. Local officials scrub the internet of local scandal, pull on snitches in closed chat groups to find loudmouths, call the internet police to harass them, and command troll armies. All these efforts are methodically tracked.
For instance, during the outbreak each district in Hangzhou sent back forms at 4:30pm and 5pm summing up their activity for the day. How many harmful posts they deleted, how many accounts they shut. How much traffic gov’t commenters got. Incredibly thorough and methodical.
They also track social media accounts/websites they took down. Over the years officials have gotten more aggressive at pulling accounts/sites and reporting them to police. Following a CAC meeting about the virus in Feb, a stern warning to close any problem sites was issued.
Then there are the paid commenters. Hundreds of thousands of low level gov’t employees are ordered by officials to post positive comments online. They use specialized software to command large numbers of accounts and mass post. Here’s a guide to what they get paid in Guangzhou:
Another system to train online commenters allows officials to put trainees onto two teams, and then let them compete to be the most influential with whatever message they are ordered to spread.
The old idea that censorship is about deleting needs to be tossed away. Chinese officials have crafted something much more sophisticated. It deletes, but it also uses fake commenters to distract, snitches to inform, and police to threaten. The system worked well during the virus.
Even when calls for freedom of speech trended after Li Wenliang’s death, officials fought back and won the day. Looking at it today, they have engineered a new nationalist consensus. Amazingly, the internet has become a strength for the party to enforce social controls.
As democracies struggle with the reality distortions of social media, Beijing has weaponized the internet’s power to inflate filter bubbles that help it rule. It’s a key part of its governance system, and something officials want to export. It may well change the global internet.

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More from @paulmozur

23 Nov
As Chinese officials hung thousands of cameras across Xinjiang, an abiding question has been how they process all that footage. We found an answer. They're using one of the world's fastest supercomputers. And it was built with American microchips.…
The supercomputer center is as bleak a symbol of dystopian tech as you can imagine. It sits at the end of a forlorn road that passes six prisons. The machines, powered by Intel and Nvidia, line the inside of a strange oval-shaped building with an inexplicably green lawn.
Top-end Nvidia and Intel chips helped the machine rank 135th fastest in the world in 2019. In the past two years the People's Armed Police and Public Security Bureau have built regional data centers next door, likely to cut latency as it crunches huge reams of surveillance data.
Read 11 tweets
5 Sep
Earlier this year Chinese police dragged Joanne Li from her house, manacled her to a chair, and interrogated her for 3 days. Her crime: sending a link on WeChat. For her, WeChat used to be fun. Now it reminds her of jail.…
Ms. Li's story is instructive as the Trump admin weighs a WeChat ban. In Toronto the app connected her to the Chinese community. But over time she saw how it disconnected that group from reality. Rumors were rife. Some were racist, others political: Image
When Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada, she was unsurprised when Chinese friends in China started saying the country had no rule of law. But she was shocked when many of her Chinese friends in Canada agreed. It showed the power of a state-guided filter bubble. Image
Read 8 tweets
25 Aug
A mainland China style digital dragnet is descending on Hong Kong. In the past month HK police have broken into the Facebook account of one politician, hung a camera outside another's house, and tried to phish the login details to Jimmy Lai's Twitter.…
With the Nat Sec law biting, we're seeing more extreme tactics. Police pinned Tony Chung's head in front of his phone to trigger the facial rec. Then they held his finger to the phone's fingerprint scanner. Even tho neither worked, they seemed to break into his FB account later.
Agnes Chow's neighbors said a surveillance camera was set up by her doorstep. She shows how people are adjusting. She appointed a 2nd admin to her FB account, who worked with FB to shut it down after she was arrested. Here's her video tutorial to cybersec:
Read 6 tweets
11 Jun
So Zoom suspended the account of @ZhouFengSuo after he hosted a virtual vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Some context on Zoom in China: it has been on Chinese censor's radar for a while, but seems to have fallen thru the cracks.…
In Sept. 2019 Zoom was briefly blocked in China. In response a Zoom reseller posted instructions for real-name registration and said there had been a call from the Ministry of Public Security to follow the cybersecurity law. That got it out of the doghouse for the time being.
Yet as Zoom soared to prominence this year, Chinese could still get on anonymously and connect with the world. It was a bridge over the Great Firewall. For May 1, Zoom blocked unregistered Chinese accounts from being able to host meetings. They could only join as participants.
Read 10 tweets
5 May
I’m very proud. But worth saying, the situation in Xinjiang remains a terrible tragedy. Millions, like Ferkat’s mother, suffer silently under surveillance and intimidation. The bulk of our team is no longer allowed to report in China, so such abuses are now much harder to cover.
Proud to have been part of an amazing team and a huge thanks also to all the editors who are so indispensable and don’t get enough acknowledgement: @gillianwong @CRTejada @adriennecarter @puiwingtam @ellenjpollock1 @meslackman @panphil
Because all that matters is the work, going to take this chance to repost the pieces we did over the past year on Xinjiang. It's harrowing stuff, but a vital reminder of the deep costs of China's rising authoritarianism. Here's a look at Kashgar last year:…
Read 13 tweets
16 Apr
Final act: my last reporting trip in China. It was supposed to be about life getting to normal, but we were followed by police, had interviewees intimidated, and then got a nice dose of xenophobic vitriol. And for some reason I'm still sad to leave.…
My great fear is the chauvinism+xenophobia that come with China's new nationalism will stay after the virus has gone. In the past year the CCP has blamed foreigners for the Hong Kong protests, said we invented the issues in Xinjiang, and now the virus.…
If you take Beijing at its word you'd be crazy not to be angry at the world. That's creating very ugly scenes at the moment. The lashing out at writer Fang Fang for chronicling Wuhan's suffering. The racism towards Africans in Guangzhou. It feels a new era…
Read 11 tweets

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