But the picture has become even more confused by a torrent of propaganda, unreliable theories and deliberate misinformation being pushed for a variety of reasons.
Increasingly, experts and government officials in the United States and Europe are accusing China — the country first hit by the virus — of stoking that confusion and trying to shape the narrative through its state-run broadcasters and publications, and on social media.
China is trying to push three main messages about the outbreak, according to Rod Wye, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London and former head of Asia research at the UK Foreign Office.
“They are not at all keen on exploring the origins because that shows up real weaknesses in what they did,” he told CNN Business.
Third, Wye said, there is an attempt by Chinese officials to “sow confusion” about the way other countries have responded. That’s part of an effort, “to undermine the credibility of those who are critiquing China and to strengthen the credibility of the Chinese narrative,” he added.
“Some US politicians, scholars and media outlets that are hostile to China have kept slandering and attacking China. China is a victim of disinformation,” the ministry said.
China: The hero in state media
One of the ways China spreads its message is through foreign language state-funded media outlets around the world, including newspapers such as the China Daily and Global Times, and television networks like China Global Television Network (CGTN).
“Their argument on coronavirus is they say China has been open and transparent. It’s the same political bullsh*t Donald Trump or [UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson has done. Everyone lost the first month on this,” the current staffer, a journalist based in the United States, told CNN Business. “Of course the Chinese are more capable of covering stuff up and dripping out new details … but they’re so ham fisted when they do that they’re just awful.”
CGTN did not respond to requests for comment.
Straightforward reports about the number of cases or new treatments for the virus appear alongside glowing TV segments on China’s successful response to the virus and the aid it is sending around the world. Much of the recent coverage about any supposed Chinese failures has focused on criticism from other countries and how Chinese officials are pushing back.
“If [the Chinese media] is going to be at all influential it has to be tailored to the society they are trying to get the message to,” Wye said. “What they want to do is increasingly both put a strong positive narrative for China and also to reduce or weaken the credibility of reports that are less than complimentary about what is happening in China.”
Questioning the origins on social media
On social media, a more sinister approach to news about China and the coronavirus has been underway for weeks. Messages questioning the origins of the virus, some even suggesting it was created by the United States, have been pushed online by some Chinese officials, and then repeated by Chinese state media.
The Chinese foreign ministry has defended Zhao’s tweets.
“If you keep picking on him just for citing this word ‘might,’ then how about the US President, Vice President, Secretary of State, the State Department spokesperson and some lawmakers, who falsely accused that the virus came from lab in Wuhan, saying the virus was man-made or leaked? Have you ever questioned them?,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying asked reporters at a press briefing last week.
US reporters have challenged the Trump administration about that claim and have been given no evidence to support it.
But it’s not just the US administration that’s pointing fingers.
“The whole point of this kind of disinformation is it’s not just the credibility, it’s everybody’s credibility that is undermined by all this so that it is very difficult then to establish a clear exposition of how this all started,” said Chatham House’s Wye.
Muddying the waters
The US State Department said it has found evidence that a network of Chinese operatives have spread coronavirus misinformation online about the origins of the virus and the United States’ response.
Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center — which coordinates efforts to expose foreign disinformation and propaganda — told reporters last week that Chinese government-linked social media accounts have spread questionable “concerns” about US-funded bio safety labs in the former Soviet Union, “mainly to try to take attention away from concerns about the labs in Wuhan.”
Other Chinese government-linked accounts have pushed “positive messages” on Beijing’s coronavirus response, she said, “to convey that only the [People’s Republic of China’s] handling of the crisis is a model for others and that the PRC is superior.”
Gabrielle said her team has found evidence that these efforts are supported by a network of inauthentic coordinated accounts on Twitter.
In response to the State Department’s allegations, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao highlighted Twitter’s response and told reporters on Wednesday that “China is always opposed to creating and disseminating false information. Reports that claim China has been spreading disinformation on Twitter are groundless.”
China’s coronavirus campaign appears to have had mixed success so far.
But Chinese state media have had paid-content insert deals canceled by influential papers. A spokesperson for The New York Times told CNN Business it has stopped running the advertisements that are meant to look like news articles.
A think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security issued a report last month saying anti-China sentiment around the world is at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, according to Reuters.
Bill Bishop, the publisher of the Sinocism newsletter and a longtime observer of Chinese diplomacy, told CNN Business the Chinese have angered many western countries like Australia, France and the United States with the disinformation campaigns and the questionable theories floated by their diplomats.
“In some ways we should just let [the Chinese] talk and let the facts speak for themselves,” he said. “Right now China is really digging its own hole in many ways. Sometimes it’s better to just let people dig.”
Steven Jiang contributed reporting.