Posting rumors on social media sites in China can get some people thrown in jail.
A Chinese man has been detained for spreading “rumors” about the bird flu in his home province of Hubei, according to state media. The man, who has been identified only by his last name Zhou, reportedly posted on a popular mobile messaging platform known as Wechat. In the post, he said, “A doctor from Yichang People’s Hospital died of H7N9 at 4:21 a.m. yesterday.” He also added that the doctor was a 31-year-old pregnant woman. “A baby is still in the mother’s belly and doctors who participated in the emergency treatment have been quarantined,” he wrote, according to Xinhua News. “Multiple cases of human H7N9 infection were also found in other regions in the province.”
Because a large number of Chinese people believe that the government attempts to cover up bad news — and that state news is often unreliable — they turn to social media sites to glean information. These sites are also sources of unfounded rumors.
In 2002, China was accused of covering up an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), in order to avoid spreading “panic.” Instead of revealing the true number of cases, the Chinese government handled the outbreak secretively, reporting that some 19 people were infected in Beijing when the true numbers were closer to 100, according to the BBC.
The H7N9 bird flu has infected more than 120 people in China this year. The influenza A H7N9 strain emerged in China about a year ago, a new strain that concerned many health authorities — mostly because China’s track record in keeping transparent records about illness outbreaks hasn’t been too solid. Last year, some 132 cases and 37 deaths had been reported by the time the flu season had peaked.
The same strain has reappeared this year and expert flu reporter Helen Branswell notes that “the numbers are rising so fast it’s tough to keep track of where the count stands. Between the time this article is written and when it is read, the numbers will almost certainly change.” The World Health Organization (WHO) has emphasized the importance of remaining vigilant, and flu experts worry that the strain holds a pandemic risk. Worldwide, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates some 272 cases and 62 deaths since February 2013.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government holds a tough stance on its belief that people who start rumors on online forums ought to be punished to “preserve social stability and halt the spread of untrue stories that could cause panic,” Reuters noted. Hubei’s public health officials had announced that the man’s rumors were untrue, but human rights groups criticize the government’s move, saying control of internet discussion limits freedom of expression.