Blogging the China Earthquake

Chinese citizens have been turning to the Internet for information on loved ones who went missing after an earthquake in Sichuan province took up to 13,000 lives. Twitter, the online tool that allows friends and family members to send short updates to one another via IM, SMS, and social networking sites like Facebook, has helped many Chinese keep each other up-to-date on their safety as well as on news related to the quake.

There’s been discussion of Twitters becoming more and more popular as a “platform for serious discourse,” used by citizen and professional journalists alike. Twitter apparently broke the news about the earthquake before the earthquake tracking agency the U.S. Geological Survey.

But the influx of information spread via Twitter, as well as YouTube and various blogs, in some cases may be raising more concerns than it’s quelling. Many Chinese bloggers are questioning why the government wasn’t able to predict the quake and help citizens prepare:

Local media in April noted water suddenly draining from a large pool in Hubei province, east of Sichuan. That report has been snapped up by bloggers looking for natural omens.

Other bloggers have unearthed a statement by a local government bureau in Sichuan, quelling rumours of an earthquake about a week before Monday’s disaster.

Some “conspiracies” floating the blogosphere are that the government may have tried to ignore the earthquake out of a “desire for a peaceful Olympics.” According to the UK Telegraph:

[Blogger] Shanghaiist posted 90 updates to the story, and started a rumour that the authorities had prior warning of the earthquake which provoked an official rebuke and more chatter across blogs.

The website gathered together material as diverse as reports that spy satellite images of the region were being used in the rescue operation, to the fact that Monday was Buddha’s birthday, to a posting about how people killed in the earthquake were “victims of China’s economic miracle.

Some have compared the situation to the handling of Hurricane Katrina by New Orleans and the U.S. government. The situation also looks a lot like the 2003 SARS epidemic, when Chinese citizens spread exaggerated accounts of the numbers affected by the disease through SMS, sparking widespread panic and international criticism of the CCP for not better managing the crisis.

Times Online quotes “established journalist” Chang Ping’s reaction to the quake:

“…as someone with relatives in the affected area, I could not stop myself from seeking whatever information I could …”

He added: “The information was clearly unreliable, and it was difficult to tell what was true or false.

“Together it all spoke of a single problem, and that is the people’s fierce appetite for information when faced with a public incident.”

Most talk about citizen journalism revolves around whether or not it should be considered reliable or professional. On the one hand, this type of panic on the blogosphere could serve to delegitimize the Internet as a news source. But irresponsible blogging could ironically have just as much of a positive impact as the citizen journalists uncovering the truth about the not-always-transparent Chinese government.

WSJ reports that the state-run Xinhua has “proved surprisingly aggressive at covering the earthquake in Sichuan province” to protect the country’s reputation now that millions of competing accounts of the quake are being spread through the Internet:

A regulation promoted as increasing government transparency took effect just two weeks ago. The regulation urges government officials to disclose more information to the public, including “information on the management, usage and distribution of social donations in funds and in kind for emergency and disaster relief.”

At the same time, the leash has tightened on the country’s news media. Just last August, the government approved a law restricting news outlets in covering natural disasters. The law says that “units and individuals are prohibited from fabricating or spreading false information regarding emergencies and government efforts to cope with emergencies,” according to a Xinhua report at the time.

Though the law was aimed more at relative muckrakers, Xinhua was affected too. Yet since the earthquake, it has filed more than 200 reports and updates . . .

The verdict isn’t clear when it comes to Xinhua’s performance in covering the disaster. “Are they going to ask deeper questions about possible early warnings?” [David Bandurski, a researcher with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong] says. “We’ll wait and see.”

This blog post original appeared on The Ethical Blogger.

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