Social media sites such as Twitter are banned in China, but that hasn’t stopped government officials from the communist nation and their allies from using the platforms to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories about coronavirus.
And Twitter hasn't removed the bogus information.
The World Health Organization cited “Chinese authorities” that claimed that COVID-19 might not be passed from person to person in an obviously inaccurate message sent to the organization’s 7.2 million followers.
“Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus,” the WHO wrote on Jan. 14.
The tweet essentially claiming coronavirus might not be contagious was still posted on Twitter as of Thursday morning, nearly three months after it was initially sent, and as millions of Americans are following stay-at-home orders in order to slow the spread of the virus.
There are other examples of pro-China disinformation that have not been removed by Twitter -- some more egregious than others.
An eye-opening example was sent by Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, when he promoted a conspiracy theory on March 12 that coronavirus was brought to the city of Wuhan by the United States military.
“It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!"
Twitter has not removed the message and American media covered it, so its existence isn’t exactly a secret to the tech giant.
“Parts of Chinese social media, and even the country's government, appear to have launched a concerted campaign to question the origin of the novel coronavirus,” liberal CNN reported last month.
Even NBC News, which has been accused of parroting Chinese propaganda, reported that Zhao is known for making “outrageous comments” on social media.
Back on March 7, China's embassy in South Africa floated a theory that coronavirus did not originate in China.
“Although the epidemic first broke out in China, it did not necessarily mean that the virus is originated from China, let alone 'made in China,'” the Chinese Embassy wrote in the tweet that was not removed as of Thursday morning.
Twitter’s website indicates that the company “purpose is to serve the public conversation” and the platform’s lengthy rules “are to ensure all people can participate in the public conversation freely and safely.” Twitter has specific rules against just about everything, including violence, terrorism, child sex exploitation, abuse, harassment, hateful conduct, self-harm, promotion of unlawful good or services, sensitive media with graphic content, various privacy concerns, spam, election integrity, impersonation, copyright/trademark infringement and manipulated media.
“You may not deceptively share synthetic or manipulated media that are likely to cause harm. In addition, we may label Tweets containing synthetic and manipulated media to help people understand their authenticity and to provide additional context,” the official Twitter description of manipulated media states.
Apparently, disinformation designed to push debunked talking points about a deadly global pandemic doesn’t fall into any of these categories.
Media Research Center vice president Dan Gainor, who oversees the conservative organization’s TechWatch initiative designed to monitor censorship attempts by social media platforms, didn’t hold back when asked for comment on the misleading tweets not being removed by Twitter.
“I'm sure Twitter sees itself as a global company. It doesn't want to offend the… nation of China that lied to the world about how many thousands died from the pandemic,” Gainor told Fox News. “Twitter has a weird relationship with facts. It polices things conservatives say and targets pro-life organizations. But a lunatic regime that locks up 1 million Muslims for their faith and blames the U.S. for the pandemic, it can lie as much as it wants.”
Gainor then pointed out that NBC News and other mainstream media outlets have been accused of pushing China’s talking points, possibly paving the way for Twitter to let the information stay on its platform.
“I guess, in that way, Twitter is patterning itself after the major media in the U.S.,” he said. “The American press have put forth tons of Chinese lies about the pandemic.”
Twitter has suspended or removed countless users for tweets that violate its rules over the years, with everyone from #MeToo advocate Rose McGowan to conservative actor James Woods winding up in the doghouse because of specific tweets over the years. Many political pundits have been censored and others have claimed to be shadow-banned, which is the alleged act of partially silencing a user without their knowledge by making it hard to search or locate their tweets.
President Donald Trump’s former attorney Rudy Giuliani and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk both recently had messages removed when they promoted hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria that many feel can combat coronavirus.
CNN reported that Giuliani and Kirk were “temporarily locked for violating the Twitter Rules regarding COVID-19 misinformation.”
It’s unclear why the pro-China misinformation is not a violation of Twitter rules.
When Fox News asked Twitter what it has done to combat misinformation that pushes pro-China talking points, it provided a statement and pair of links.
“We have a long history of tackling disinformation on our service and publish all state-backed operations (inc. China) we remove in full to our public database,” a Twitter spokesperson told Fox News.
One link sent by Twitter details a 2019 decision to disclose steps taken to stop tweets meant to “sow political discord in Hong Kong” amid protests by suspending various accounts. The second link provided by Twitter was “publicly available archives of Tweets and media that we believe resulted from potentially state-backed information operations” on the service.
The Twitter spokesperson pointed Fox News to its “policy on public officials and world leaders, which applies equally to representatives of all states” and notes that a series of exceptions the company makes to its rules.
“We focus on the language of reported Tweets and do not attempt to determine all potential interpretations of the content or its intent. Presently, direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules,” the spokesperson said. “However, if a Tweet from a world leader does violate the Twitter Rules but there is a clear public interest value to keeping the Tweet on the service, we may place it behind a notice that provides context about the violation and allows people to click through should they wish to see the content.”
The spokesperson did not immediately respond to another follow-up question asking if the WHO and Zhao tweets will be placed behind the notice to provide context and why China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson is considered a world leader.
Political satirist and columnist Tim Young relies on Twitter for self-promotion and to distribute his work, but he has publicly pondered if he’s been secretly censored by the platform over his conservative views.
“It's incredible to me that Twitter would allow this misinformation and Chinese government propaganda to stay and be spread on its platform,” Young told Fox News. “Aren’t they supposed to be committed to fighting foreign influence in our elections?”