In the war against substandard drugs in China, social media has become a new battlefield.
In 2009, only two months after twitter and facebook were banned in China, the chinese microblog Sina Weibo came into existence, and is now having significant impacts on the quality of drugs sold on the chinese market. Sina Weibo has now become China’s most popular social media network and microblog platform, boasting 300 million registered users. In 2012, it was averaging 100 million posts per day.
In an autocratic China, people take to social media to vent frustrations and alert each other whenever they come across a bad drug.
Counterfeit and substandard drugs make up more than 10% of the global medicine market, and it’s an increasing problem — with up to 25% of fake drugs ending up in developing countries. The vast majority of counterfeit drugs originate in China — ending up in Africa, but some don’t make it out and circulate within the Chinese system.
Recent research has examined the impact of the introduction of Sina Weibo on the quality of drugs on the market. Scientists at the Institute for International Economic Studies at Stockholm University use the amount of bad drugs found by China’s Drug Administration (SFDA) as a proxy for drug quality. They explore the variation in bad drugs before and after Sina Weibo’s introduction to obtain the quantitative estimate of the impact of Sina Weibo.
Results suggest that introduction of the microblog significantly reduced the amount of bad drugs on the market, of which the size of the effect was substantial. Sina Weibo, as much of social media, is a relatively new occurrence, and the amount of drug data collected by the Chinese SFDA predates it. The introduction of the social media network in China coincided with a clear declining trend for the number of bad drugs found.
“Attention is power, and circusee is changing China”
The chinese use the word “circusee” to describe Sina Weibo, which refers to the power of Weibo to make millions of people to focus on one issue together.
In March of 2010, the Beijing-based China Economic Times reported that four children had died over the past four years from improperly stored vaccines. The vaccines had been improperly stored and distributed throughout Shanxi Province and resulted in the death of several children and seriously injured many others.
When the scandal broke, users took to Sina Weibo to vent frustrations. Information ﬂooded the microblog across China, and thousands of parents called for joint action and refused to have their children vaccinated by ofﬁcial disease control centres.
The effect of increased attention has the added benefit of China’s Drug Administration putting in more effort and deters the production of bad drugs. The SFDA is found to work harder in checking drugs around where there is more social media buzz.
The SFDA samples and tests speciﬁc drugs from around 300 prefectures across China. Sampled drugs come from clinics, disease control and prevention center/anti-epidemic stations, drugstores and hospitals, wholesalers and intermediary drug companies. The users on Sina Weibo post information revealing the stores or producers of bad drugs. As information sparks on Sina Weibo, more bad drugs are brought to the attention of authorities and screened out — eventually deterring the producers from producing the bad drugs.
“Behind the great firewall of china, information wants to be shared”
Even within an autocratic society, Sina Weibo represents a cheap and readily accessible type of free media, that is relatively free from censorship. When information can circulate quickly, censorship struggles to keep up.
The day after the 2010 vaccine scandal, the State Information Office ordered the deletion of all newspaper stories that covered the scandal. The Central Propaganda Department required traditional media to only use official news releases from Xinhua News Agency. However, information was still freely flowing on social media.
In a country like China, a microblog is an especially cheap, accessible and relatively free type of media. Sina Weibo can circulate information among millions of users widely and quickly. Once a bad drug is found and posted on the microblog, followers and re-posts can spread the information immediately and informed consumers can respond.
Even with censorship a post can be read by thousands of people before it is deleted. The deeper truth is that China cares about social welfare and thus censorship has taken a back seat to using such information to rectify the problem of bad drugs — even if they unveil government corruption in the process.
Image — source