By Ocean Salazar and Marcos Moschovidis

Widespread “fake news” about the recent coronavirus outbreak, ranging from reports about escaped Chinese bioweapons to mass cremations in Wuhan, are becoming increasingly rampant. Unverified videos, origin-free photos, and other misleading media sources are quickly believed by a wide portion of the public and create an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, as shown by irrational panic purchases of goods such as toilet paper in Hong Kong.

Are Hong Kong’s citizens to blame for believing unconfirmed theories about the coronavirus, though? In short, no. They have merely become accustomed to doubting the official government narrative of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as well as Hong Kong’s narrative.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Both have fostered a climate of distrust with a long record of cherry-picking convenient truths, discrediting facts that contradict their policies and suppression of free speech. As the coronavirus grows closer to becoming a global pandemic — with over 4,000 international cases, 92 of them in Hong Kong — this atmosphere of distrust in two highly opaque governments is starting to pose a serious threat to global public health.

The root cause of this problem can be found long before the recent virus outbreak. In fact, there have been countless times when the local government and the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) have violated public trust in order to validate their narrative. The following three examples all happened long before anybody knew about the virus:

First, the Hong Kong government has insisted on the notion that protesters are a minority of “rioters” and peaceful accomplices; Carrie Lam has described them as the “enemy of the people”, stressing the fallacy of a silent, pro-government majority. However, this silent majority was nowhere to be seen when pro-democratic incumbents won a landslide victory in the 2019 District Council Elections. The district councils are the only governmental bodies in Hong Kong chosen by full universal suffrage.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Second, the local government, in concert with the police force, has stressed that “there is no police brutality”. To most Hongkongers and foreign observers, excessive police force is a reality and just the tip of the iceberg. International human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for an independent inquiry into police use of force.

Rumours have flourished that police were in collusion with armed thugs who attacked unarmed protesters on July 21st, and also involved in the mysterious death of HKUST student Alex Chow Tsz-lok. In both cases, the police changed their message when new photographic and video evidence, contradicting their first narrative, started circulating.

After the 7/21 attacks, images of police walking away from Yuen Long station and conversing with white-shirted thugs were widely spread on social media. Police claimed that “a group of people had led some protesters to Yuen Long.” This claim has now been refuted by photos and videos of the armed mob patrolling and attacking civilians before Lam Cheuk-ting arrived in Yuen Long.

Photo: Screenshot.

In the case of Alex Chow Tsz-lok’s death, police had claimed they had not entered the car park where Chow was found until 1:05 am. The police later changed their statement when videos surfaced of them leaving the car park at 11:28pm.

Finally, the Hong Kong government’s continued regurgitation of Chinese state-media theories on the protests has validated the notion that the government serves Beijing, and not its citizens. Carrie Lam and her administration have long stuck to the theory that the Hong Kong protests are caused by “deep-rooted”, non-political issues, such as the economy and foreign influences.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Carrie Lam and her administration embarked on a charm offensive to try to restore credibility in the city’s freedoms, rule of law, and government. To do so, she once again blamed foreign interference for the Hong Kong protests, but acknowledged “there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence”.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Now with the coronavirus epidemic, the people of Hong Kong do not trust their government to provide truthful information, due to its continuous presentation of “alternative facts” and ignorance of standards for transparency and accountability. Informed Hongkongers have had to live with the assumption that their government will contradict what they have seen with their own eyes.

This reality transforms posts found on social media into a game of truth or tale for internet users, as numerous published reports are either immediately censored, at least partly confirmed at a later stage, or outrageously wrong.

For example, videos from Hubei province showing life under lockdown have been immediately censored on Weibo. Yet, people have been saving and reposting them on different platforms to spread awareness about the current situation. Another example is the surfacing of unverified photos of CSI masks for apparent personal use by police officers. Shortly after their publication, one of the photos was found to be from 2018.

Photo: GovHk.

However, Apple Daily recently also revealed that the HKPF’s protective equipment supplies from the government were magnitudes higher than those of other government sectors. For example, the police received nearly 14,000 N95 masks when the Department of Health only got 256. So, although inaccurate, the rumours regarding the CSI masks have some truth to them, which leaves citizens doubtful about what to trust and what not.

The most bizarre of recent coronavirus “reports” regarded the toilet paper supply in Hong Kong. Online rumours stated that supplies from toilet paper manufacturers in mainland China were compromised because of the coronavirus shutdowns. The result was mass buying, hoarding, and even armed robbery of toilet paper in Hong Kong supermarkets. Although some shops said they were unsure about toilet paper supply, there was no genuine shortage — until panic created it. Shelves were emptied of basic goods such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

Photo: Christopher Cheng/United Social Press

Panic and misinformation are not the fault of citizens. These are the effects of a climate of distrust created by poor political decision-making of the local government and Beijing. If the Hong Kong authorities want to restore trust with the public and maintain the city’s image as a modern centre of commerce, it needs to hold itself to a new level of transparency and accountability.

This would entail full, fact-checked information about the coronavirus response measures, influence from the CCP on decision making, and about the recent response to the protest movement. Sadly, this is extremely unlikely and presumably too late. For now, Hong Kong citizens will have to continue to rely on independent fact-checking, news organisations, and most importantly each other to stay informed and ready about the virus.

Marcos Moschovidis is the founder of EU for You, a channel informing users about the European Union. He is a postgraduate student in Politics & Technology at the Technical University of Munich and has spent a semester at HKUST. Ocean Salazar is the CEO of Studioso, a music education technology startup in the United States. He is currently a student in the World Bachelor’s in Business, a programme offered in partnership with HKUST.

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Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.