Confidential directives from Chinese authorities to local propaganda workers and new outlets revealed that officials paid trolls to manipulate social media discourse on Covid-19, based on a report.

Chinese officials worked extensively to suppress inconvenient news regarding Covid-19, according to the report.

In the report by New York Times and ProPublica, a non-profit investigative newsroom, Chinese authorities directed paid trolls to overwhelm social media with party-line chatter and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices.

These Chinese officials had ordered not to push notifications alerting readers to the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who had warned about the outbreak, who later died of Covid-19. These officials also instructed social platforms to gradually remove the doctor's name from trending topics pages, and activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter.

A special directive to news websites and social media platforms said: "... do not use push notifications, do not post commentary, do not stir up speculation. Safely control the fervor in online discussions, do not create hashtags, gradually remove from trending topics, strictly control harmful information."

The report mentioned that at a time when digital media was deepening divides in Western democracies, China is manipulating online discourse to enforce the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) consensus.

The documents clearly depict China's effort to maintain a tight grip on the dissemination of information. It takes an enormous bureaucracy, armies of people, specialized technology made by private contractors, the constant monitoring of digital news outlets and social media platforms, according to the report.

Though China has been slammed by the US and other countries for trying to hide the extent of the outbreak in its early stages, these documents indicate that Chinese officials tried to steer the Covid-19 narrative to make the virus look less severe, and make the authorities look more capable.

Several news outlets in China were also instructed not to play up reports on donations and purchases of medical supplies from abroad, as they can disrupt China's procurement efforts.

"Avoid giving the false impression that our fight against the epidemic relies on foreign donations," one directive said.

The report credited Chinese President Xi Jinping, for creating the Cyberspace Administration of China in 2014 to centralise the management of internet censorship and propaganda as well as other aspects of digital policy.

Dr Li's death showed the terrible cost of the Chinese government's instinct to suppress inconvenient information, the report by New York Times mentioned.

Following Dr Li's death, a gag order from Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) was leaked on Weibo, China's Twitter-equivalent platform, which fuelled anger among people. Although the agency allowed people to permit expressions of grief, a directive warned that any account trying to sensationalise the story to generate online traffic should be dealt with ''severely''.

Furthermore, the report informed that government departments in China have a variety of specialized software at their disposal to shape what the public sees on online platforms.

According to an analysis of computer code and documents from one such software, Urun, the company's products can track online trends, coordinate censorship activity and manage fake social media accounts for posting comments.

The report also said that CAC ordered offices to start purging internal reports, particularly the sentiment surrounding the novel coronavirus, after some confidential public-opinion analysis reports were published online.

China has been criticised widely across the world for its alleged role in the spread of the novel coronavirus that has infected over 75 million people across the world. More than 1.6 million people have lost their lives to the virus.

While some accuse it of being complicit, others deem it culpable in the spread.

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