A Lesson Hopeful from the Pandemic Caused by Censorship and Worsened by Disinformation
By Isaac Mao
We are all confused about how this whole havoc started, we are still bewildered how the world could let this happen although there were so many investments and prophecies. Now we are suddenly channeled into an alternative but painful reality with incredible scope. It’s not like a world war in the past, however, it’s never been applied so equally to everyone in this world. Nobody can evade the crisis.
If we do want to learn something from this whole matter, we should at least understand the root causes for our future generations, and for those who sacrificed their lives including the legendary mathematician John Conway.
The earliest warning from the grassroots over COVID-19 can be traced back to this tweet (in Chinese), but deeper details are still mysterious and may never be uncovered without a joint political effort. Only before his last days in this world, we started to know Dr. Li Wenliang raised alarm on WeChat even earlier but was shuttered by the Demogorgon-like censorship system in China. After Dr. Li’s passing, several grassroots journalists disappeared in Wuhan, and then civilian activists were detained for archiving media reports on Github, etc. It’s very clear now that some early cover-ups by the Chinese government should be scrutinized before the narratives are even more blurred.
With atomic accuracy to control information flow to prevent a political avalanche, the communist regime has experimented with all sorts of measures in the past two decades to build its infrastructure (from the Great Firewall to the Great Cannon) and transformed itself to an all-seeing state by taming businesses with both carrots and sticks. Now it’s reaching a new level dubbed “censorship 2.0” by historian Harari, where “it’s not to block information, it’s to flood you with misinformation”.
Sadly, it’s a successful strategy at least domestically in China for the sake of the regime, which even received the highest approval rate among peers if that’s even areal metric). Yet the reality is more than that of Orwellesque, with harms beyond the de facto closed system: Coronavirus was an opportunity to blitzkrieg the whole world, fatefully.
Worse, the cover-up of Wuhan’s outbreak is just the start. , Disinformation by China’s
government quickly spreads globally. Running disinformation farms is not novel to the Chinese government but is already a daily practice, . The communist system has been designed to exploit the free world for several years now. After the outbreak was apparent, the system needed more narratives to advance the early coverups. With almost unlimited resources to pour into online trolls, state-backed hacker groups and overseas agents activated the machine of disinformation to work 24/7. The disinformation is well planned without a doubt.
But in the modern age, we are not really fighting with a mysterious plague from medieval times. We are actually fighting an information war on multiple fronts. More accurately, we rely on information to conquer uncertainty. We need to collect the right samples, we need to test the right people; we need to share research articles; we need to open all the data ingest them together to feed machines to generate more insights. Eventually, we need to know everything about the virus by studying all aspects with the most desirable computing capacity: microscopic structures, genetic sequences, protein expressions, biological and anatomical features, replication mechanisms, etc. and finally how to subdue them without killing ourselves.
Also socially — though reluctantly — we learned to wash hands often, hate but accept taking masks, stay at home during the lockdown, work remotely like a stage comedian, all because we are all smart enough to calculate probabilities in our quickly evolved understanding. Whenever there’s new public data on infections in our region, a probability calculation ticks in our mind.
We know only accurate and unbiased data helps. We need to collect more on how viruses migrate through different mediums, trace them back to every single traveler, and map the mutations in real-time. Ultimately, once we master enough information from the micro to the macro level, we’d win.
However, when we demand more certainties to save our species, disinformation will totally run against such goals. Disinformation is designed to contaminate truth and fact, manipulate data, and rot cognitive capability for those being attacked. By hacking into our nature of sharing, disinformation disguised as a meme lures our sensational neural circuit to click the sharing button without a second thought (some social media platforms even removed the button to automate it, e.g. Twitter’s “like” functions equals sharing as default). The negative feedback loop is contrary to Sharism, because the easier this type of “sharing” promotes, the easier we could be used as clickbait to feed the needs of disinformation makers. Along this path, we will be defeated in the information war.
If this reasoning is true, we need to do something to tackle it.
While coronavirus disseminated through global connectivity, disinformation relies on social media infrastructure to survive. Social media is seen as an ever-dangerous experiment after web 1.0, only more monetized. On the one hand, social media helped democratize sharing technologies in every corner; on the other hand, it pinched and stirred the existing social orders which were running in a latent way with fragilities. Social media is like subliminal threads and signals, suddenly being burst without control. It’s opened the box for all of us, revealing a lot of hidden truths, whilst giving us big headaches to tide them up to seek new ways to declutter.
Silicon Valley has failed to conquer China’s Great Firewall, will it fail again this time given it’s more challenging? Mere decluttering won’t solve the problem of disinformation because it behaves in the same way as a censorship system by removing so-called malicious information from timelines. Nor is it possible to be sustainable, especially for profit-driven businesses. Nevertheless, at the same time we emphasize the challenges social media companies are facing, they should respond more systematically and transparently, as they still have no idea disinformation is the bug of their platform. When those platforms heavily invested in the most hyped algos to tout users to click share, they should have been responsible enough to design disinformation-proof systems from the beginning. If we want to prevent a future pandemic, disinformation should be solved both technically with global consciousness, and more specifically, with a solution to tackle China’s censorship and disinformation syndrome.
We already have an affidavit to this argument.
During this global ordeal, nevertheless, there’s one country that has achieved almost full immunity Taiwan. Alarmed by years of bullying by the “motherland” and the bloody unrest in Hong Kong in 2019, Taiwan’s society, as well as the public health authority (a far more efficient CDC head there and a super diligent Digital Minister) realized how to discern disinformation on the other side better than anywhere else. The country implemented almost immediate measures upon the earliest information seen from social media and online forums thanks to the same language used by both China and Taiwan. In a censored system, we see whistleblowers were punished and exposed to threats, and we even can’t get the exact counts of casualties; compared to an open society and democratic system with enough awareness of censorship can deploy a better solution. But once censorship is exported through China’seconomic power, it can affect the entire world. It’s why international organizations started to self-censor even though Taiwan sent enough warnings to them. Unfortunately, given such valuable experience, Taiwan is still drifting outside the misinformed WHO after all vindications.
By and large, we’ve seen how seriously one censorship system can endanger the whole of humanity. Amid the suffering, an important lesson is also emerging: the flow of information could send us to hell or save us to be more immune to future risks. The collaboration of fighting the virus is not only about creating new vaccines to stop the coronavirus but also to create an immune ecosystem to let information freely flow through the globalized world. Hopefully, we can decode how disinformation works soon and create the best inoculation to prevent its further invasion.
Isaac Mao (@isaac) is a technologist and entrepreneur.