China’s coronavirus has also sparked an epidemic of online panic. When the severe acute respiratory syndrome or Sars hit in 2003, 6 per cent of China’s population were online; now almost 60 per cent are. The average user of WeChat, the country’s dominant social media platform, spends 90 minutes a day on the app. As a result, while more than 40,000 patients in China are fighting the virus, the entire country is facing an onslaught of online media – much of it disinformation.
There are important upsides to the proliferation of social media in China. It enables citizen reporting of a kind rarely seen in the country – such as video blogs from Wuhan, the city at the heart of the epidemic. Such independent reporting is essential in China’s tightly state-controlled media environment.