When You Set Out To Block Misinformation, You Can Wind Up Blocking A Hero Like Li Wenliang

Combating disinformation and misinformation online is an admirable goal. However, we often criticize overly broad attempts to do so, noting that they could lead to censorship of important, accurate, and useful information. Here’s a somewhat tragic case study of that in action. You may have heard late last week about anger in China over the death of doctor Li Wenliang, a physician who had tried to warn people about the new coronavirus well before most others had realized how dangerous it was. Dr. Li eventually caught the virus himself and passed away, sparking tremendous anger online:

Since late Thursday, people from different backgrounds, including government officials, prominent business figures and ordinary online users, have posted numerous messages expressing their grief for the doctor, who contracted the new coronavirus, and their anger over his silencing by the police after he shared his knowledge about the virus. It has prompted a nationwide soul-searching under an authoritarian government that allows for little dissent.

“I haven’t seen my WeChat timeline filled with so much forlornness and outrage,” Xu Danei, founder of a social media analytics company, wrote on the messaging platform WeChat.

The “silencing,” if you haven’t heard the details, was that the police told him he was spreading misinformation online. Inkstone News (a subsidiary of the South China Morning Post) has a translated letter that the police gave to Dr. Li telling him to stop spreading “untruthful information online.” Dr. Li responded to the notifications saying he would stop his “illegal behavior” and that he “understood” that if he continued he would be “punished under the law.”

According to the law, this letter serves as a warning and a reprimand over your illegally spreading untruthful information online. Your action has severely disrupted the order of society. Your action has breached the law, violating the relevant rules in “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Penalties for Administration of Public Security.” It is an illegal act!

The law enforcement agency wants you to cooperate, listen to the police, and stop your illegal behavior. Can you do that?

Answer: I can

We want you to calm down and reflect on your actions, as well as solemnly warn you: If you insist on your views, refuse to repent and continue the illegal activity, you will be punished by the law. Do you understand?

Answer: I understand

Even the Chinese government appears to possibly recognize that this whole setup was a problem:

The outpouring of messages online from sad, infuriated and grieving people was too much for the censors. The government even seemed to recognize the magnitude of the country’s emotion, dispatching a team to investigate what it called “issues related to Dr. Li Wenliang that were reported by the public,” though without specifics.

For many people in China, the doctor’s death shook loose pent-up anger and frustration at how the government mishandled the situation by not sharing information earlier and by silencing whistle-blowers. It also seemed, to those online, that the government hadn’t learned lessons from previous crises, continuing to quash online criticism and investigative reports that provide vital information.

Now, some might respond to this that stomping out disinformation online is quite different than Chinese government suppression of information. But no one can come up with a principled explanation of how this is actually different in practice. Stanford’s Daphne Keller, who studies exactly this stuff makes the point pretty concisely:

Be careful what you wish for.

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