China’s Censorship Helped Start a Pandemic. Can Free Speech End It?

from ReasonTV

The contagious spread of information is in a race against the contagious spread of the disease.

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Li Wenliang…died at 2:58 on February 7, 2020…We deeply regret and mourn this.

When Wuhan Central Hospital announced the death of the 34-year-old ophthalmologist on the social media site Weibo, there was an outpouring of sadness and anger in China.

It was one of the first signs that something far more troubling was happening in the city of Wuhan than the Chinese government was letting on.

When Li had tried to alert his colleagues via WeChat that he was witnessing an alarming spike in respiratory illnesses, the local government forced him and eight other people to sign apologetic admissions of “rumor-mongering.” It was the beginning of a disinformation campaign that would help turn a crisis into a global pandemic.

Trump had recently told the press that COVID-19 cases in the U.S. would likely be “close to zero” in a few days, and he later claimed the outbreak was “very well under control.” In response to a reporter’s question about the lack of early CDC testing for the virus on March 13, Trump replied: “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”

U.S. officials’ attempts to downplay the crisis likely worsened the spread by slowing the reaction times. But there’s an enormous difference between a country that jails dissenting voices and a country with strong First Amendment protections. 

The media and political class have derided Twitter and Facebook for lacking adequate gatekeepers, but it was through these platforms that medical professionals, technologists, epidemiologists, and everyday citizens bypassed the mainstream media and the government to implore their fellow citizens to act. 

American social media is chaotic, confusing, and full of bad actors and misinformation. Wild speculation abounds. But that wild, freewheeling conversation keeps us safer than a censored press, or even a free press controlled by professionals.

The contagious spread of information is in a race against the contagious spread of the disease. It is a powerful weapon in this global emergency.

Written by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Lex Villena.

Music credits: “Cendres,” by Kai Engel. “Fifteen,” by Lex Villena. 

Photo Credits: Li/Ropi/ZUMA Press/Newscom, EPN Newscom, SHI ZHI FEATURE CHINA Newscom, YUAN ZHENG/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, YUAN ZHENG/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, Ling/Ropi/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Phoenix7777 Data source: ???? Outbreak notification, Yonhap News/YNA/Newscom, Agencia de Noticias ANDES Xi Jin Ping, ID 62507210 © Shannon Fagan |, NIAID Coronavirus, Shen Bohan Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom, CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom, Fei Maohua Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, LI KE/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, LI KE/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, LI KE/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, LI KE/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, Xie Huanchi Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, SHEPHERD ZHOU/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, Ju Peng Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, Kyodo/Newscom, Kevin Dietsch – Pool via CNP/Newscom, ID 161497307 © Paulus Rusyanto |, Marco Alpozzi/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Michael Candelori/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Michael Candelori/Sipa USA/Newscom, Joe Russo / MEGA / Newscom, Samuel Boivin/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Ipa/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Mairo Cinquetti/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Zikri Maulana/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Fryeri by Kai Engelw, CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom