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Society & Culture

Why is the Media Experiencing an Accountability Deficit?

Apr 23 , 2020
  • Nong Hong

    Executive Director, Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS)

On March 16th, U.S. president Donald Trump started using the term “Chinese virus” on his Twitter instead of “COVID-19”, the official name announced by the World Health Organization (previously known as “2019 novel coronavirus”). Following that, the United States and China did not hesitate to accuse each other of coronavirus fear-mongering and demanded that the other stop smearing its reputation over their respective responses to COVID-19. The pandemic has obviously become the latest row between the two states, further testing the bilateral relationship most recently stressed by the trade conflict. 

In the first few weeks, when the Chinese government started to take harsh steps to combat the virus, most Chinese media coverage focused on updating the number of confirmed cases, assessing measures by respective affected provinces and cities, rushing in doctors from across the country to help with treatment, criticizing local governments’ low efficiency, and praising international aid. During the same period, according to a database created by the Institute for China-America Studies, topics related to COVID-19 that western media sources covered ranged from the purely informational, such as international efforts to develop a vaccine, to band-wagoning-critiques of the Chinese government’s response to the illness. The database indicates that Western media was also looking keenly at economic activity in China, with multiple index measurements attempting to provide an outlook on the short and long-term economic impacts of the disease. 

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the world, and many governments prove themselves to be far from well-prepared to handle a breakout of this scale, the blame game is heating up between the United States and China as each tries to color global efforts to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the Chinese government’s initial response to the virus and expressed his belief that Chinese officials downplayed information about its severity. In his March 16 tweet, U.S. President Donald Trump said his administration would be supporting industries "that are particularly affected by the ‘Chinese virus.’” This term has been widely viewed, particularly by China, as an attempt to blame China for the pandemic causing such great difficulties in the United States, despite the U.S. government's miscalculated response to the public health threat. 

The frustration caused by the U.S. government’s pointing fingers at China has been aired in China everywhere, from press conference podiums to editorial columns and social media. On March 19, the state-run news agency Xinhua published an editorial in the People's Daily online that suggested that China's dispute lay with the Trump administration rather than the American people. China Daily also published an editorial airing similar views: "U.S. businesses, institutions, and people donated money and supplies to China as it struggled to contain the virus. The U.S. people know that this is not of China's volition." On the Sino Weibo, one of the biggest social media platforms in China, coverage of the U.S. being criticized by public health experts and of the international community calling COVID-19 “China Virus” ranked top 1 to 6 on its Super Topics Ranking List, which generated heated discussion among the Chinese netizens.

With the COVID-19 beginning to spread globally, officials on both sides have used social media and other platforms to attack each other. Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus” is just one instance, a term critics say is racist and xenophobic. He claimed China left him no choice but to respond to Chinese officials who were floating conspiracy theories that the COVID-19 illness began in the U.S. or was planted in China by the U.S. military. Social media analytics platform Sprinklr indicates that there were more than 19 million mentions related to COVID-19 across social media, blogs, and online news sites worldwide on March 11. Mentions of President Trump reached roughly 4 million at that time, according to the same platform.

The wave of COVID-19-related content has become a high-stakes test for social media platforms’ abilities to fight misinformation. While a lot of COVID-19-related information likely came from legitimate sources, it is assumed that a large portion was inaccurate or outdated given the novelty of the disease and the fast-changing nature of related news. While it might be in the interest of some news outlets with a political agenda to try to mitigate domestic chaos resulting from an outbreak, what is more dangerous and should not be underestimated is that more sickness and death from a pandemic may potentially be caused by false recommendations about how to avoid contracting the virus and what measures infected people should take to avoid spreading it.

As more and more people are requested by their governments to self-quarantine and spend more time alone, social media means more gathering, connecting, and information sharing. With stress and fear running high and half-truths circulating, these social media platforms face their own risks. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and China’s Weibo were also among the earliest sources of accurate COVID-19 information; however, since individuals, celebrities, politicians, and others use social platforms to share their coronavirus experiences, air grievances, or simply kill time while conducting self-quarantine or working remotely, important health and safety information easily gets drowned out. Inaccurate information could be unintentionally spreading.

This has led to the media taking unprecedented steps to stop such a spread of coronavirus-related misinformation. The current efforts of handling misinformation on most social media platforms are primarily concentrated on so-called “bad actors” that deliberately spread lies and misleading information, sometimes for political gain or propaganda. The major social platforms—Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube—along with Google and Microsoft issued a joint statement on March 16 pledging to work together to fight COVID-19-related misinformation. 

Technical bugs associated with misinformation about the pandemic are easier to solve, but those with political agendas or socially debatable issues are not. It’s difficult for social media platforms to draw a line between facts and lies without appearing partisan or biased, especially in this age of “alternative facts”. With the pandemic continuing to spread, more potential economic and social issues will arise; the war of words naming COVID-19 “China Virus” was just the beginning. Such rhetoric not only undermines international cooperation to fight against this global public health but also has the side effect of stirring up anti-Asian prejudice, which has caused millions of Asian-Americans to be living in fear. It is certainly not the interest of the international community to see more waves of media coverage on a transnational blame game. COVID-19 should not, by any means, serve to turn the U.S.-China “decoupling” theory into a de facto action. Instead, the U.S. and China should be working together and taking the global lead to fight against this pandemic disease. COVID-19 should be the paradigmatic example of a joint cause compelling U.S.-China cooperation. 

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