Signal-To-Noise Ratio In Internet News

Regular visitors to this blog will know that a perennial complaint is the trustworthiness of information on overseas Chinese-language websites such as Boxun (Peacehall).  Here is an example taken from the day of June 20, 2005.

First, there was a long article on the Shalan flash flood.  There are the field notes taken by the Nanfang Weekend journalist (see the translation in The Shalan Flash Flood - Part 4).  At the end of this article, Boxun acknowledged that the piece was originally published at  This is what I considered to be a trustworthy piece of journalism, both because of the source as well as the writing itself.

Second, there is a short piece on the same Shalan flash flood [Boxun] on the same day:

A netizen friend wrote: "The latest development is that the angry masses are attempting to assault the town government and police station leaders, causing them to escape (they did not flee; they just made themselves unlocatable).  All roads in Shalan are blocked.  The town is under military control.  There are hugh clashes between the soldiers and the masses.  The command center was sacked at 4pm.  All the administration vehicles that entered have been smashed and overturned.  More than 200 people are dead!!!  The number of missing is over 150!!!

Boxun cannot verify the above numbers.  If true, the number of dead should exceed 350.

The last paragraph would have precluded the publication of this item in any mainstream media.  Boxun is an Internet news site that operates on the basis of accepting any contribution, declining to establish the veracity of anything and preferring the truth to emerge by itself somehow.  So readers are left on their own to figure out what the truth is.  The official death toll is 117.  The official version is more believable since no one has been able to name any other person who died without being included in the government's count.

Meanwhile, in the unlinkable South China Morning Post, Chris Taylor wrote about Boxun and an apparent exclusive breaking news on an outbreak of avian flu that has killed 121 people already in Qinghai province, China.

A US-based Chinese-language news website known as Boxun, or "Abundant News", has riveted the online medical community over the past month with a series of reports from China's Qinghai province about an alleged bird flu cover-up. One report - said to be leaked by a Chinese official - claimed that 121 people were dead from avian influenza, or H5N1.

China has denied the claims, but for anyone who follows both Chinese-language underground news agencies and the medical organisations that obsessively monitor emerging viruses, the Boxun reports and the international online response to them recalls early 2003, when news emerged of a killer virus in Guangdong. The virus was Sars, which became a menace overnight after a Boxun report interrupted a long media clampdown by Beijing.

Boxun's Sars story was translated into English and repeated by ProMED-mail, an online reporting system that keeps subscribers informed of outbreaks of new diseases. Now Boxun is either leading the pack again, or leading it astray - and Boxun's founder doesn't rule out the latter. Nevertheless, ProMED picked up the story once again and the world's online community of virus watchers has been discussing it since.

"We've been following the reports very closely for several weeks," said Peter Cordingley, a public information officer for the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific in Manila. "We have no independent confirmation of them."

Boxun's founder, who goes by the pseudonym of Wei Shi and describes himself as a businessman, said from the US that he could not verify the web-posted stories from Qinghai that Boxun had run.  Nor could he vouch for the alleged whistleblower's credentials. All Boxun's non-secondary source reports are posted anonymously. But he said he hoped that by putting the stories in the public domain, somebody would prove them true or false.

Okay, are you ready to prove them true or false?

One of the posts on the website includes the only known photographs of the dead bar-headed geese at Qinghai Lake that sparked the controversy. Wei is convinced the photographs are authentic.

One grainy, wide-angled shot shows a sandy foreground with what seem to be masses of lifeless birds stretching away to a sliver of a turquoise lake under an arching blue sky. If the anonymous poster of the pictures is to be believed, the birds are bar-headed geese struck down by H5N1 at the end of their 1,000km migration from the northern plains of India to China's remote western Qinghai. 

Here are those photographs (Boxun).  The accompanying text read: "June 3, 2005, Xining.  According to the informant, these photographs were taken at Bird Island after it was placed under quarantine after May 27, 2005.  The identity of the informant cannot be divulged in consideration of his/her safety.  These photographs show the serious damage done by the avian flu, causing the island to be turned into a hell for the birds.  We will try our best to collect photographic evidence of human victims in order to tear apart the government lies.  In the first photo taken from afar, this looks like a hell for birds with corpses everywhere and nothing flying.  The other two photographs are closer, and shows many birds dead, some near death and very few still standing.  It is estimated that several thousand birds have died already."


[SCMP continued]  The photographs were posted on May 24, one day after the Chinese authorities told official media that wild geese were dying of H5N1 in Qinghai, marking China's first outbreak of avian influenza since last August.  It was news that generated great interest in scientific circles. The report ended a nine-month clean bill of health in a nation that is home to about 13 billion poultry. But more importantly it was evidence that H5N1, a scourge to domestic birds in Asia, was now killing wild species of birds. This suggested a possible mutation in the virus that simultaneously made it much more mobile and a greater threat to other species, including humans.

Boxun confirmed that threat the day after the Xinhua report, with an anonymous story headlined: "Acute bird flu in Qinghai leads to multiple deaths, officials impose news blackout and strict prevention." The report, which was datelined Xining - Qinghai's provincial capital, claimed that "large-scale deaths of birds" began in early April, and that tight monitoring of the news had kept it from the outside world.  "In mid-April, the phenomenon of widespread infection of humans, domestic animals, etc. appeared ... but because the area is so sparsely populated, the large extent of the infection of humans and domestic animals was not readily apparent," the report said.

The alleged deaths later came to include six Chinese tourists, who reportedly contracted bird flu during the May Day holiday week. The report named three of the dead tourists as from Sichuan province: Li Tianlei, male and Dai Jing, female, both from Chengdu, and Li Tianhai, male, from Chongqing.  A report the next day stepped up the charges, claiming that an official leak had revealed 121 people had died of bird flu. Of those, 11 were health workers, the report said.  "At present, Chinese officials are still maintaining their position that as of yet there are no human infections and have increased the suppression of news," the website said. According to sources the report does not name, about 1,300 people were quarantined, but it was not reported where.  On May 25, a report provides a list of 18 villages with a total of a 120 deaths. It also provides some unscientific musings on whether the disease was pure H5N1, or a new viral concoction, before concluding "it is definitely contagious".

So is this signal or noise?

(New York Times via Eurasia Group)  New Asian Flu Outbreaks in China Raise Fears of a Mutant Virus.  June 11, 2005.

For the last two weeks, rumors circulated on some Web sites tracking infectious diseases that more than 120 people, including six tourists, had died of avian flu in Qinghai, and that hundreds had been quarantined.  However, they all proved traceable to a site run by antigovernment dissidents, which said it could not verify information members had posted anonymously. Pictures on the site purporting to show hundreds of dead birds were grainy, and allegations that the site's “reporters” had been arrested were unconfirmed.

“We're now more skeptical of the sourcing than we were,” said Bruce Klinger, an analyst for the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm that drew attention to the reports and then contacted American diplomats in China in an effort to confirm them.

If you have formed an opinion by now, I would suggest that you read the following discussion thread at Agonist.  At a minimum, the photo on the right had been modified by PhotoShop with the same bird showing up multiple times.  Who do some of the discussants blame for the fakery?  The Chinese government, of course.  Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't, but shouldn't Boxun be held accountable for just letting it through without any responsibility or guilt?  Why should they be let off with a comment like "nothing that Boxun claims has ever been verified"?