After news surfaced that top Chinese doctor Li Wenliang attempted to spread the first warnings about COVID-19 before passing away from the virus, the Chinese Communist Party allegedly used squads of paid internet trolls to kill the story.
A study cowritten by ProPublica and the New York Times outlined how Li’s abrupt death at age 34 was called an “unprecedented challenge” that would kick off what was described as a “butterfly effect.”
“As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results,” says one instruction spread to news outlets and social media platforms—one of thousands of guidelines examined by ProPublica and the Times that were secretly ordered by the Chinese government.
The Chinese Communist Party is well-known for harsh censorship and media regulations, but the new records gave an inside look into the level of precision in the Chinese authorities’ campaign.
The report goes on to say: “The documents include more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos and other files from the offices of the country’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, in the eastern city of Hangzhou. They also include internal files and computer code from a Chinese company, Urun Big Data Services, that makes software used by local governments to monitor internet discussion and manage armies of online commenters.”
According to the documents, Beijing demanded that news websites not permit push notifications calling attention to Li’s death. Chinese officials also ordered social media platforms to progressively strike his name from trending pages.
As the Chinese virus began to creep into the public’s awareness earlier this year, the Chinese Communist government began unleashing paid internet trolls—christened the 50 Cent Army—to invade social media sites with pro-CCP talking points.
The documents examined came directly from China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, and featured files from Urun Big Data Services, a Chinese subsidiary that creates software used by local governments to watch over its own citizens’ activity online and supervise groups of online commenters.
Neither organization replied to the media’s requests for comments on the report.
“China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources. 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,” Xiao Qiang, the founder of China Digital Times, said to ProPublica and the Times.
“This is a huge thing,” he continued. “No other country has that.”
Before his unexpected passing, Li abruptly became a big player in China when he and seven others became informants who were the early whistleblowers about the new pandemic.
“When I saw them circulating online, I realized that it was out of my control and I would probably be punished,” Li told reporters from his room in the Intensive Care Unit after he was diagnosed with COVID-19.
During that time, he was disciplined and condemned by officials for what they called “rumormongering.”
He was quickly detained by authorities before his untimely death reportedly from COVID-19.
China has encountered a flareup of international criticism over the last few years in regard to operations in Hong Kong and the large-scale detention of Uighur Muslims. The government has seen worldwide pressures reach new heights centered on its unwillingness to take responsibility for a perceived lack of transparency and recklessness during the start of the pandemic.