“Rumor is just a prophecy far ahead of our times,” says a quote widely shared online in China in recent weeks.
The idea speaks to the mounting anger among many Chinese people over what they see as heavy-handed government censorship, with unpleasant truths written off as “rumors” and truth tellers threatened or faced with punishment.
On Chinese social media platforms, authorities have paid a price for silencing the truth. In many posts, if the warnings of Li and other medical workers had not been muzzled, they could have raised more awareness among the public and perhaps better prepared them for the deadly outbreak, which has now sickened over 84,000 people and placed hundreds of millions under varying forms of lockdown.
But the overwhelming narrative on social media is that concealing the truth has caused another problem. Amid dwindling public trust, authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to combat potentially harmful disinformation.
Struggling with disinformation
Almost as soon as the outbreak spiraled into a public health crisis in late January, a dubious fringe theory started to spread: that the virus did not come from nature, but was man-made in a lab.
The scientific findings, however, did not prevent the rumor mill from spinning, nor did the repeated attempts by authorities to stamp out the wholly groundless accusations.
As the virus continued to spread and kill, conspiracy theories became more elaborate, with many pointing to a high-level virology lab known to study bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, the ground-zero of the outbreak.
No credible evidence was offered for the theories, which originated from unverified social media accounts.
Four days later, the facility issued yet another all-encompassing statement that listed and rebutted all the rumors that had swirled around the lab in one sweep.
The rumors, which continue to proliferate, have since drawn the rebuke of scientists around the world.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” wrote 27 prominent public health scientists in a joint statement published in the medical journal The Lancet on February 19.
Citing studies of the virus’ genetic makeup, they said scientific findings “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens.”
“Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumors, and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus,” the scientists wrote.
Separately, another unfounded theory taking aim at the US has gained traction among groups of Chinese nationalists.
Another new, unfounded variation claims the coronavirus is not a man-made bioweapon, but did originate in the US — and many Americans thought to have died of the flu this season were actually killed by COVID-19.
“What is the truth?”
While diehard conspiracy theorists can be found in every country, it’s clear from social media that the plunge in public trust in the Chinese government following its alleged mishandling and censorship of the outbreak has made it much harder for authorities there to dispel rumors.
The erosion of trust is centered around cases such as Li, the Wuhan doctor, where so-called “rumors” were later deemed to be inconvenient truths authorities wanted to suppress.
Li was summoned by the Wuhan police on January 3 and reprimanded for “spreading rumors,” over a message he sent to his medical school alumni warning of the emergence of a SARS-like coronavirus. He later contracted the virus from a patient and died last month.
That deep-rooted frustration was summed up in a poignant joke that made the rounds on social media in late January, when the outbreak seemed to be spiraling out of control: “If someone can go back in time to return to the Wuhan of a month ago, can they save us all from this catastrophe?” “Nope,” the answer goes. “They would just become the ninth rumor-monger.”
To the dismay and fury of many in China, the swift rebuttal of well-meaning “rumors” — or in fact unpleasant truths — did not stop with Li’s death.
The whistle-blower’s passing set off a remarkable storm of calls for free speech across the country. In response, the government has doubled down on its attempts to control the narrative.
Accounts and reports that fall outside the official line are promptly scrubbed from the internet and replaced with a constant flow of heroic tales of self-sacrifice. Independent voices describing the grim reality on the ground, meanwhile, have been silenced.
Meanwhile, some propaganda attempts have backfired. In northwestern Gansu province, a state-run newspaper recently published a video of female medical workers having their heads shaved before setting off to join the front lines in Hubei, with some crying in front of the camera. The video, meant to show their admirable devotion, drew backlash online, with many questioning its necessity and whether the medics were pressured into shaving.
Over the past few weeks, Chinese social media has been alight with outrage at the propaganda and censorship, with the censors themselves having to work overtime to stay on top of it.