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Divided views over abuse of personal information as confirmed COVID patient trolled online amid COVID spike in Chinese city
Na Qing
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Divided views over abuse of personal information as confirmed COVID patient trolled online amid COVID spike in Chinese city

Head image: People wear face masks walking in the street at Chunxi Road, Chengdu, China. March 4th 2020. Source: 

A new round of COVID panic arises as four new confirmed and one asymptomatic COVID cases were reported in the Southwestern city of Chengdu in China on Tuesday (8th December). 

Activities and locations visited by the five, as well as some personal information such as work status and home addresses were soon made available publicly - for the sake of track  and trace.

Online trolling has since been seen towards the youngest affected, whose surname is Zhao.

The 20-year-old woman has become the focal point of public debates on Chinese social media, due in part to her jobless status and has been found to have attended several bars and pubs in the city’s main districts over the past 14 days , she also came into close contact with her grandma who has also since tested positive for the virus.

Picture: Zhao's activity tracks among bars and pubs in the city of Chengdu between 1 and 7 December 2020.

Netizens' views are divided as to whether this was an abuse of personal information. There are also mixed opinions regarding if public criticism leads to cyberbullying. The fire seems to have been fueled after several mainstream media outlets including News Broadcast, the flagship daily news program of CCTV showed sympathy for the woman, with the presenter commenting “what responsibility she should take for spreading the virus is still under investigation. Even if she is responsible, it is no reason to expose her personal information or troll her.”

“Her privacy should not be a public topic, preventing the virus should.”

Some netizens also voiced their support for the girl, “What’s wrong with going to pubs?” one comment reads, “she never knew that would happen to her...if she developed suicidal  thoughts out of these trolls, anyone (who trolled her) could be a criminal.”

Kai Lei, a Weibo, or micro-blog user who has more than 1.47 million followers and is an author for Toutiao news - one of the main Chinese news platforms and a core product of Bytedance, ran an emotional post describing how the girl works tirelessly among different pubs and bars at night as an “atmosphere bee” - the person who acts like a cheerleader in pubs to warm up events. “The reason she is doing that is to make a living,” Kai adds.

According to local media in Chengdu, the girl’s grandmother, 69, was quarantined on 6th December after attending hospital with COVID symptoms and got a positive result the following day. An initial investigation found the girl was at a local bar called Hai Wu Li in Pidu district, where she lives,  from midnight on the 6 December with four friends until 3am the next morning. Three of the group then went to a bar called Playhouse in Jinjiang district and stayed for approximately half an hour before heading back by a hired car. 

On the same day at 9pm, she was seen going to another pub in Jinniu district with another person by a hired car and went home at around 12am on 7 December. She was not wearing a face mask during her outing except when she was on buses and on the metro, the statement says. She was hospitalized on 7 December and confirmed positive on the next day.

One Weibo user said, “I am not backing cyberbullying, but this girl is not innocent...her grandma was quarantined on the 6th with COVID symptoms, did she not understand what that means? And she went out regardless?”

Another Weibo user criticised official media for “seeing themselves at the top of social morality” by “educating” people who made negative comments about the girl and arguing that she is a 20-year-old adult but failed to practise common sense in this case, which is irresponsible toward society.

Zhao published a statement on 9 December, in which she apologised to the public but said she is also a victim who caught the virus accidently. She also confirmed that she works at bars to “maintain  the atmosphere at events’ and engage customers”.  “For the first time, I felt the power of social media,” said Zhao, “I did not know my grandma was affected. Should I have known that,  of course I wouldn’t have gone out. I apologise for the inconvenience I caused you all.”

Picture: Zhao's statement. Source: Jinri Toutiao.

“I reported my activity tracks to the (local) CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) immediately after testing positive,” she continued, “I don’t know who exposed my personal information, including my phone number. I’ve been receiving calls and texts since yesterday...those trolls will, more or less, have an impact on my life and career in the future, and it has harmed my family too.”

The hashtag of the “granddaughter of a confirmed COVID patient in Chengdu” drew over 581 million views by the time of publication. The debate around the use of personal information was then upgraded as several national media outlets misidentified a Hunan girl as Zhao and used one of her photos for their report on Zhao’s trolling.

The picture which sees the Hunan girl surnamed Zhang sitting in the backseat of a car with a white dress has been published by media including Toutiao and Sina across different media platforms. As well as shared by influencers on Weibo, such as one named Liu Gaolei, a media worker with 240,000 followers. His post where Zhang’s photo and a map showing the tracks of Zhao’s activities are included with the caption saying, “The Chengdu granddaughter who was confirmed to have COVID went to several pubs on one night. Just looking at how frequent it is, you know she is unusual.” The post garnered more than 3,000 likes.

Zhang soon posted on Weibo through her personal account, saying, “...I’m not even from Chengdu...publishing my photo and saying I’m a COVID. This is not something you can joke about.”

In an interview with the Paper, Zhang said, “this is defamation, I’m thinking of reporting it to Chengdu police.” She also said that the abusive photo was taken in April which she shared it on her timeline on Wechat.

She said it was only after she was told by many of her friends that her photo was trending online that she realised she was mistaken as the infected girl from Chengdu. “I saw many popular accounts with millions of followers on Douyin (- the Chinese version of Tik Tok - ) share my photo.” Zhang urges those who have posted her photo to delete them as soon as possible and asks for an apology from posters. 

Chengdu authorities are preparing for a second round of mass testing following the advice of medical experts. 


Na QingQing Na

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