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Internet celebrity leads, official media assists: monkeypox conspiracy theory spreads on Chinese social media

Internet celebrity leads, official media assists: monkeypox conspiracy theory spreads on Chinese social media


With more confirmed cases of monkeypox in Europe and the United States, conspiracy theories and false information related to it are spreading unchecked on the Internet in China. Bloggers, led by pro-government influencers, have accused the United States of being the source of monkeypox’s spread, based on false information promoted by Chinese officials such as the “American Biolab”, distorting English information without providing actual evidence.

There have not been any cases of monkeypox in China, but major Chinese state media have made monkeypox the focus of their coverage. China’s online censorship agencies have also allowed misinformation and conspiracy theories about monkeypox to spread. The US government, US laboratories, US monkeys, US military, Bill Gates, etc. have all become the protagonists of these conspiracy theories.

Such monkeypox conspiracy theories are not unique to the Chinese Internet. Similar disinformation can also be seen on international social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. But Chinese internet censorship experts have pointed out that under China’s strict speech management mechanism, unregulated monkeypox conspiracy theories mean official permission and approval.

U.S. public health experts told VOA that the spread of public health-related conspiracy theories poses a threat to the health of society as a whole.

“This could lead to torture and death that could have been avoided,” said Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York.

Since the first case of monkeypox:

was confirmed in the UK on May 13, and many European countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Italy have also found monkeypox patients one by one. On May 18, the first case of monkeypox was diagnosed in the United States. As of press time, there have been more than 200 cases of monkeypox in the world, concentrated in Europe and the United States, and Australia.

The monkeypox virus is very similar to the smallpox virus, but monkeypox is far less lethal and transmissible than smallpox. Modes of human-to-human transmission include close contact with infected respiratory secretions, skin lesions of an infected person, or items recently contaminated with body fluids or diseased material of a patient. The existing smallpox vaccine is an effective cure for monkeypox.

Health experts generally agree that the spread of the monkeypox virus is easier to control, and although the current stage of transmission will continue for some time, the possibility of a pandemic like the new crown is almost zero.

“Monkeypox is not a virus with pandemic potential,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, told VOA. “No matter what the current outbreak is, the ability of this virus will not lead to a pandemic.”

Yet over the past week, monkeypox has become the focus of Chinese state media coverage. Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily, CCTV, etc. have made follow-up reports and analyses on the development of monkeypox outbreaks. Related hot topics initiated by official media often occupy the top spots on Weibo’s hot search list, while Shanghai, which has not been fully unblocked due to the new crown epidemic, has gradually disappeared from online discussions.

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With the help of the news, many pro-government bloggers began to spread conspiracy theories and false information about monkeypox in an attempt to target the United States.

On May 20, a blogger named “Guyana Muchan” posted a few screenshots of the document on Weibo, calling it “the leaked monkeypox biochemical epidemic plan in the United States.”

In fact, the document is a report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a US think tank, on how to avoid a global biological crisis. The so-called “schedule” is simply reporting a hypothetical biohazard scenario. The document was not “leaked”, but has been posted on the think tank’s website.

After the conspiracy theory was debunked by a Bloomberg report, “Lone Smoke Twilight” released a video response. In the video, she did not explain why she lied, insisting that she “just stated some basic facts.”

She then spread more conspiracy theories. She believes that European and American countries have been researching and approving new vaccines in the past few decades for the treatment of smallpox, which was eradicated worldwide in 1980. “The coincidence is a bit outrageous”, thereby alluding to the United States and this round of monkeypox. outbreak-related, or known in advance that monkeypox will break out.

In fact, the United States is still approving new smallpox vaccines in response to the use of this virus as a biological weapon by some countries, including the former Soviet Union and now Russia, to cause harm to American soldiers or civilians.

“They had a very potent biological weapons program that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Dr. Adelja said. “The question now is whether the biological weapons program has restarted after Putin came to power.”

Chinese pro-government commentator Sima Nan suggested in a video released on May 23 that the monkeypox virus originated in monkeys in a US laboratory. He alleges that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lost four monkeys in January, three were recovered and one is still at large.

This happened in Pennsylvania. On January 21, a truck carrying 100 monkeys was involved in a car accident and four monkeys escaped. But all the lost monkeys were recovered the next day, and three of them were euthanized.

The first U.S. case of monkeypox this year was in Massachusetts, not Pennsylvania. The patient was diagnosed after returning to the United States from Canada.

Sima Nan also said that the U.S. dispatched marines to search for monkeys, which is “unavoidably reminiscent”. In fact, it was Pennsylvania State Troopers and wildlife officials who were dispatched to find the monkeys? The Marine Corps claim came out of nowhere. A May 23 article in Jimu News, a subsidiary of Hubei Daily Group, also attempted to link the crash to the monkeypox outbreak. The article said that the United States dispatched military forces to find the escaped monkeys. The military search for monkeys also found no source.

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One possible explanation is that the author mistook the English “state troopers” for state troopers for American soldiers. The conspiracy theory that monkeypox has been modified by a US virus lab is the most popular online in China. The pro-government cartoonist “Sweet Potato Bear Laoliu” warned on Weibo on May 21 that the United States may have upgraded the monkeypox virus and developed “a more virulent and more transmissible monkeypox virus”, which has become a “monkeypox virus”. 

The next pandemic virus”. Zhao Shengye, a Chinese internet technology blogger with nearly 4 million followers on Weibo, also said that after researching the monkeypox virus, he believed that “the probability that it was produced in laboratory virus enhancement research is greater than 99.9%”. Health experts reject such claims. World Health Organization officials said on Monday (May 23) that there were no signs of the virus mutating.

The monkeypox virus has been around for thousands of years. The monkeypox virus was first isolated from monkeys in the 1950s. In 1970, the first case of human infection was detected in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the cases since then have occurred in the central and western rainforest regions of Africa. In 2003, the first case of monkeypox outside of the African continent occurred in the United States.

Dr. Adelja pointed out that the genome sequence of the circulating monkeypox virus is very similar to that circulating in Africa.

“It was a natural outburst. All the evidence points to a natural outburst,” he said. “Everyone outside of Africa sees it as a new virus. But this virus has been causing outbreaks in Africa since the 1970s.”

Censorship agencies condone the spread of false information:

Chinese officials strictly monitor information on the Internet, including deleting content, deleting publisher accounts, and blocking keywords. Officials also often release “rumor-refuting” information to crack down on online rumors they identify and ban accounts that post or forward them.

But conspiracy theories and disinformation about monkeypox have not been cracked down, nor have the accounts that posted them been dealt with in any way.

Not only that, under the news about the monkeypox released by the official media, messages spreading conspiracy theories can be seen everywhere. These comments also often receive a lot of likes.

In response, Liu Lipeng, a former Weibo censor who now specializes in research on China’s censorship system, pointed out in a tweet that comments on China’s official Weibo are strictly censored, and comments that can be displayed mean they are officially recognized.

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“The comments that appear under these kinds of news actually represent official Chinese attitudes, or what the regime wants people to say,” he wrote.

The widespread obsession with U.S. labs on the Chinese Internet also has a lot to do with the official censorship of information.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Chinese state media reprinted a large number of Russian state media and Russian official accounts, including false information that the United States operates biological laboratories and develops biological weapons in Ukraine and around the world. At the same time, China’s Internet administration censors and deletes news and speeches that are unfavorable to Russia, trying to leave only the Russian official voice in relevant discussions on the Internet.

This false information continues to circulate on the Internet in China and is repeatedly peddled by pro-government influencers, fueling the creation and spread of some monkeypox conspiracy theories.

In the ocean of conspiracy theories, how do judge the reliability of information?

Conspiracy theories about monkeypox aren’t just popping up on Chinese social media. English versions of these conspiracy theories are also available on Twitter and Facebook, but their reach and reach have been greatly diminished.

A conspiracy theory widely circulated in both Chinese and English language circles claims that entrepreneur, and philanthropist Bill Gates and his foundation are the initiators of this monkeypox outbreak, one of the reasons is that Gates has warned about monkeypox. the possibility of being used as a biological weapon.

To this end, Professor Li of the City University of New York specially wrote an article on the website of “Forbes” magazine to refute the rumor.

In an interview with VOA, he said he was not surprised by such conspiracy theories. The monkeypox conspiracy theory about Gates is a continuation of the new crown vaccine conspiracy theory. During the new crown epidemic, some conspiracy theorists said that Gates tried to inject electronic chips into the bodies of people around the world through the new crown vaccine.

He pointed out that one of the best ways to prevent people from falling into conspiracy theories is to judge the reliability of information sources, such as whether the account posting the information is a real person, whether the account is verified, and whether the poster has a scientific background, such as a science degree or a medical degree, whether you have published articles in related fields, and how many related studies have been done.

“What everyone needs to remember is that there’s a difference between saying a few words and then pointing out a certain post (from) a certain website and a real peer-reviewed scientific paper,” he said.

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