It’s not a stretch to say that recent internet and news censorship efforts have now proven lethal, fueling the recent coronavirus pandemic that is overtaxing healthcare workers and having a significant negative impact on the global economy due to the many ordered closures designed to impede the spread of the virus. COVID-19, the illness that stems from the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, could have been properly and effectively managed had information not been censored and whistleblowers not been stifled.
China’s Position on Coronavirus
China’s position on the novel coronavirus is that the situation as being appropriately handled by local authorities and healthcare workers, and that the impact of the virus was not and would not be significant. Factual reporting after the fact shows us that this was not the truth. The ministries responsible for propaganda in China were instructed to convey a specific narrative, no matter how contrary to the truth that narrative might have been.
The official reporting out of China shows upwards of 81,000 cases and upwards of 3,000 deaths, although official reporting from China is known to be inaccurate and these figures may not be a fair representation of the situation. The Chinese government has tried its hardest to control the narrative by forcing the reporting perspective to be in line with their ideal outcome, regardless of the actual outcome.
Reddit, The Coronavirus, and Abuse Reports from China
Reddit, billing itself as the front page of the internet, is a popular place for discussion of current events. Once the pandemic began, the subreddit r/coronavirus began to thrive. People were sharing news and tips to stay safe and healthy, creating a globally unifying conversation to keep people informed of the facts as they became known.
A user made a post critical of the Chinese government’s response to the virus, particularly in their move to silence a whistleblower who had appropriately and accurately forewarned them of what would come. The post received “an absurd number of reports”, leading reddit to remove the post and lock the comments. The content itself was not in direct violation of Reddit’s policy, which only prohibits content that jeopardizes the safety of users and minors and the posting of illegal content.
While the post did not contain any content that would be illegal in most first world countries, it did include content that would be considered illegal in China. It criticized the Chinese government and disturbed their narrative, likely pushing Reddit to remove the post in order to remain above-board with Chinese internet guidelines.
How Internet Censorship Impacted Behavior
China wanted any and all news relating to coronavirus to be removed from the internet. China does not have a free and open internet, instead relying on a state sponsored intranet that only allows users to access websites and information that have been pre-approved by the country’s internet ministry. This means that any content relating to the real impact or capability of the novel coronavirus was not accessible to the general public.
Without the information that people in most impacted countries have, the population of China was not able to adequately protect themselves or take appropriate measures to minimize their exposure to the virus. With such great uncertainty pertaining to the scope of the epidemic, many people inadvertently infected themselves and others.
Epidemics work in exponents. A study conducted by The University of Southampton found that if the Chinese government had taken any real or actionable steps to intervene and properly inform the public one week earlier than they chose to become involved, the spread of the virus may have been reduced by approximately 66%. The Chinese government did not like this information being made public, as it paints them as incompetent and is contrary to the narrative they’ve decided to use as the functional truth.
Rather than taking appropriate measures at the appropriate time and allowing the collective of the population to inform and help each other, voluntarily adopting the best practices to avoid infection, the government began removing any social media posts referencing the virus. They went to so far as to shut down internet connectivity in highly impacted areas (like Wuhan) to keep people from discussing the virus, its symptoms, and how to protect themselves.
Gag Orders to Whistleblowers Compounded the Problem
Many people, including medical professionals, stepped out to speak the truth about the virus. These people wanted to save lives and prevent the spread of infection. Most infamously, Dr. Li Wenliang went public with information and ultimately died of the virus he was attempting to contain.
China takes whistleblowers very seriously. Anyone who reports information contrary to the government’s preferred narrative is subject to worse than censorship. Journalists and whistleblowers often face indefinite terms of incarceration under harsh circumstances. This causes some people to self censor out of fear of retaliation. Those who don’t self censor are almost always located by the government and made to face the consequences. Many people feared non-compliance with gag orders and decided to keep quiet online and over broadcast news.
Circumventing Censorship Can Save Lives
In countries where the government heavily monitors or restricts internet access to contain the flow of information, a VPN service is needed to access the free and open internet. In countries where VPN use is also illegal, a Stealth protocol VPN is necessary. Stealth protocol VPNs mimic normal SSL traffic, avoiding the risk of sending a red flag to the censors that a VPN service may be in use to circumvent the blocks they’ve put in place.
At the time of publication. TorGuard’s stealth protocol VPN is currently working in all regions of China.