Information Democracy in Times of a Pandemic

Do China’s strict internet laws give them the ability to hinder the way information relevant to international concern is spread online and how it affects the freedom of information on the global media landscape?

Amsterdam, 08/04/2020

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash
Written by Kate Mrozkowiak, Nadia Murady, Chaitanya Pandey, Lucica Wang

The outbreak of coronavirus also known as COVID-19 in mid-December of 2019 has spread far beyond its origin in the city of Wuhan in central China. On March 11th, the World Health Organisation declared the virus a pandemic and as of the 8th of April 2020, COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 80,000 people, with cases touching almost one and a half million globally. The virus has brought the world at a standstill with measures in place that are unprecedented. We are amidst the largest medical quarantine ever taken place in history.

A reluctant response

The alarming nature of the virus and its exponential spread worldwide, has taken the virus from a regional epidemic to a pandemic. Its global impact has led to criticism of the Chinese government and how they handled the outbreak, specifically in its early stages. The government is accused by international media and health organisations of underestimating the urgency and danger of the virus while lacking transparency.

When the first doctors realized and warned about the potential danger of coronavirus, the government was quick to counteract any rumours. Journalists and critics were censored, arrested or disappeared, and a doctor from Wuhan was silenced by the police. They had shared information about the outbreak, just like Xu Zhangrun, a Chinese law professor had done. He criticized the government and Xi Jinping in an essay he released in early February, indicating how badly they handled the outbreak. But it was quickly taken down and Xu was placed under house arrest with no internet access.

Following this reluctant response to the outbreak, it soon turned from a regional to a global crisis. This sparked a debate about the Chinese government holding back information regarding an international concern. We take a closer look at the forms of information broadcasted and understand the flow of information online under the infamously firm internet laws. We also look into whether there is any variation in important public information on Chinese based media sites and how they are published as compared to information shared on the global media landscape.

The flow of information and its importance in the global sphere

The importance of this research stems from the significance of not only the coronavirus but also how the information on domestic as well as international concern is hindered with. China is the second-largest economy in the world and its role on a global level on all grounds is immense. It also has one of the strictest media and internet laws and a brief look into them shows the grasp that the government has over it. Internet access and censorship is held under control by over sixty online restrictions enforced by the government of China, which are implemented by provincial internet service providers (ISPs).

Global journalism is of the utmost importance now. Issues and information of which the importance transcends boundaries need to be reported in a manner that best represents the situation with no underlying biases. Citizens in China and across the world depend on the media and it plays an important role in the functioning of society. The criticisms of the reporting of information on the coronavirus by China question all these fundamentals. This research looks to provide an understanding on how these various factors regarding the large country play into the larger international and for a vast majority more contrasting media and social organisations and try to uncover how much of these criticisms are valid.

Gathering data

This research culminated from two primary methods. Firstly, we chose two platforms to use as the base for our study – Google and Baidu. We searched the key term “coronavirus” (transl. 新型冠状病毒) on both search engines and with the help of the tool Data Miner we scraped the title and the URL for the top 30 search results. Unlike many tools, Data Miner is not platform-specific and can be used for both Google and Baidu. A research account was set up for both Google and Baidu to avoid search bias and cookie saving settings were turned off and adjusted to minimise the online footprints. As for Baidu, a VPN was set up to retrieve results from a Chinese location point. The time frame for the search was set from 1st of December 2019, which is around the time the official Chinese reports regarding the novel coronavirus emerged, and 31st of January 2020. With the retrieved data, we listed the variety of different sources, based on their location that was available in the top 30 search results on Google and Baidu.

Secondly, we made an analysis of the content to look into the source of information and data that is being used in the article. Instead of making a subjective analysis of the content from our perspective, we chose to look at how reliable and trustworthy the information, based on the references that were used within the article. The results for both of these methods were visualised in two separate ways. The diversity of sources based on location is visualised through markers on maps. The references used within the articles are visualised through hierarchy based graph structure made through the software Rawgraphs.

Why Google and Baidu?

The rationale behind our approach was to look into the primary sources of where information is spread. Baidu is the largest Chinese search engine with 76.05% market share in China’s search engine market and is the second largest search engine globally. It was the logical choice to use as a platform for our research especially regarding the data that needed to be collected in the Chinese context. The global iteration of Baidu is Google, where the vast majority of the world looks to for their information. Google owns 70% of the global search market share and can capture around 85% of mobile traffic. In contrast to Google’s brand of information that is accessible to everyone, Baidu has to comply with the strict internet laws of China which are enforced by the government. This limitation ranges from pop culture content to censorship of pro-democracy protests like Tiananmen. COVID-19 is the first outbreak to reach this global scale in the information age where supposedly news can be delivered and consumed by everyone relatively fast. It was interesting for us to see what information is accessible to the general public and whether there are any implications of a controlled flow of information on behalf of the Chinese government and media. Hence this approach of analysing the sources of information that are available on these platforms seemed appropriate for this study.

Diversity on Google

Figure 1. Location of sources for Top 30 search results for the term coronavirus on Google

The data derived from the top 30 search results on the Google platform are interesting. Despite the location being set to The Netherlands on the search setting, the articles and links even on the first page have some diversity in origin. The top 5 articles are from the Government of UK, The New York Times, 2 articles from RTLnews and The World Health Organisation. Further down on the list of results also show a significant variety of content. Dutch news sites and national government websites providing information on the new virus and providing updates and information on the topic are prevalent given the location settings. But foreign websites and news are very prominent too, specifically news sources from the United States. Approximately 38% of the results are American sources and about 27% are Dutch sources, making up a vast majority of the total results. They are followed by sources originating from news organisations in the United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, and Qatar.

Figure 2. Baidu References


The analysis of the content done in regards to the reference or source of information used within the articles also yielded findings in line with the search results. The most cited reference with 8 articles citing it was the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO is an independent specialised organisation of the United Nations and is in charge of international public health. It has been at the forefront in advising nations and issuing guidelines to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Its daily situation reports, which started to be available to the public on the 21st of January 2020, provide statistically and quantitative information. It is the standard for accessing information regarding the virus and is hence the most cited source.  The second most referenced source of information was academic findings with 6 articles using it. Individual scientific research is a dependable source of information and widely used in articles as it is based on tests and provides a new perspective for people towards the virus. A close third was the RIVM ( National Institute for Public Health and Environment ). The location settings influenced RIVM as being one of the more referenced articles as most dutch news organisations refer to the information provided by them as they represent the information and measures taken by the national government. The other references were along the same lines as can be seen in the visualization above. They revolve around information from government bodies, research institutes, doctors and other experts.


Baidu results are Chinese oriented

Figure 3. Location of sources for the top 30 results for the search term coronavirus on Baidu

Contrary to Google search engine results, Baidu contains 100 percent of news sources and articles originating from China when analyzing the first 30 search results for the key term Coronavirus. In the list, 70% of the results are informative and belong to various local and national news organisations in China. The rest of them are forums, Question and Answer pages and interviews that cover personal stories regarding the virus. The search results are, needless to say, lacking diversity in the sources of information that is available for consumption to the general public.

Figure 4. Baidu References

After further exploring the analysis of the content based on its source of information referenced within the articles, we find the most cited sources are local doctors. Out of the thirty websites, 5 articles cited a doctor as their source. The second most referenced source is shared between the China Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health organisation. The CDC is a governmental organisation and specialises in disease control, prevention and public health. It is important to note that when the WHO is cited in articles, it is not the primary reference in the article, nor is it the main ground for information. The close third reference is China Central Television (CCTV). The CCTV is a state-owned television network in mainland China. Besides this, the sources are quite varied but some are directly linked to the State Council. For example, the National Health Commission (NHC) is part of a department of the State Council, and also the Joint Defense and Joint Control Mechanism are part of the council.

Forms of censorship

Baidu’s results are not only determined by its algorithms but also include self-censorship and filtering by the Great Firewall (GFW), which is enforced by the Chinese government to regulate the internet domestically. This firewall blocks and limits access to foreign websites and sources so that sites such as Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia remain out of reach to users. The few foreign companies that are included are required to follow specific regulations. Thus, it explains why the results are Chinese oriented.

Not only the GFW but also the introduction of ‘the Great Cannon’ in 2015 put a larger constraint on the flow of information. The Great Cannon is an online attack tool and can carry out DoS attacks (denial of service). In these attacks, big flows of incoming traffic block services of a host connected to the internet. And so, the attacked website becomes unavailable and because there are so many different sources, it is impossible to stop this. The tool also monitors the web and censors content to ensure everything complies with government regulations. Additionally, the Chinese web undergoes another layer of monitoring. The ‘Internet Public Opinion Analysts’ censor content on the internet and monitor opinion.

What can be derived from this study?

An analysis of the data collected allows us to make some clear distinctions in terms of the information that is available on both Google and Baidu. For a start, it is safe to say that the content on Baidu is very Chinese centric. But as mentioned earlier, Baidu having to function amongst the intricacies of the Chinese internet restrictions in place, it is not surprising. Its approach in contrast to Google’s autonomous and liberal attitude is quite reserved. It is not presumptuous to say that the Chinese government has the ability to manipulate and control what it wants its citizens to see and in the same line, the rest of the world. This presumption is made on the basis that a majority of data that is available for consumption on Baidu links back to a state-controlled organisation or other sources that could be tampered with. It could be argued that it could be the same with the governmental organisations in the West, but the difference is the fact that these organisations are under more scrutiny than the Chinese government. The ability of a person to be able to access information on Google from anywhere in the world and from any source is a sense of freedom of information that is not prevalent in China.

It is to be made clear that this article cannot definitively prove that China intentionally manipulates information and broadcasts data that is contrary to the facts. The opaque organisational structure of the media landscape leads to making mere speculations rather than being able to retrieve solid evidence at least from a study of this scale and this piece adds to the discourse of the possibilities of that speculation. It is in fact the opacity that leads to these allegations. China has structured its internet and media that suits the national interest. It is in cases like the coronavirus pandemic that creates friction in the manner of which a nationalist oriented media and journalism system functions within the global media landscape.

Expert opinion

To understand this from an on the ground perspective and delve into the topic of the spread of information in China we interviewed Prof. Dr. Jeroen de Kloet. Jeroen is a Professor in Globalisation Studies and Director of the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies (ACGS), and member of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), at the University of Amsterdam. His work focuses on the cultural implications of globalization, with a special interest in contemporary China. In regards to the two platforms, Jeroen says that he would most definitely consider Google to be more reliable as a source of information in comparison to Baidu.

But he was quick to point out that the media system in China is not as restrictive as most of us in the west would imagine. “China allows a free media to function and more importantly foreign journalists and media groups to work in China”, he said. There is genuine first-hand reporting and journalism being done in China. The issue now lies within the fact that this information is not available to the Chinese masses, at least not on the national media networks. To access this information, most middle class and well-educated Chinese citizens use VPNs. “They circumvent the Great Firewall and they read the New York Times”, Jeroen says. The reality is that information and genuine reports are available even in China, it depends on whether a citizen is willing to go through the effort to access it.  However, Jeroen did point out that propaganda makes its way through on the traditional national media. The government is hardly criticised in the media and this allows room for virtual control. He also in the same regard accuses western nations of pushing their achievements and abilities in and capitalizing in times of crisis like the coronavirus to boost their popularity. Another important takeaway from this interview was that a non – traditional form of reporting and journalism takes place among groups on social media sites like WeChat. People in these groups are able to receive on the ground information as things happen on WeChat. This form of news broadcasting is in many ways unique and further implicates that information is available for people who are willing to access it.

The interview was informative in the fact that it revealed the untraditional ways in which information is spread among citizens in China. From a global perspective, foreign journalism is the access to information. International news organisations functioning in China allow for a less lenient perspective to information regarding activities in China. As Jeroen mentioned in the interview, “Information is available to those who are willing to access it”. It reflects the fact that even though there may be some form of control by the Chinese government with regards to the flow of information, there will always be alternative ways to access the reality.

Posted in Data Journalism 2020, Uncategorized