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Judge Tang Xinghua's Article on Dealing with Rumors During the Epidemic Period

【Date of Issue】January 28, 2020

I. The concept of rumors, and how rumors are produced.

"Rumors" is everyday language, but in law, rumors are addressed as 'false information'. In terms of Covid-19, fabricating and disseminating false information, and organizing or causing others to disseminate false information in a manner that disrupts social order, is strictly prohibited by law.

The production of false information has deep social roots, and relevant organs and individuals carrying out frontline social governance should fully recognize this, as it a prerequisite for their better performing law enforcement responsibilities. I feel that the creation of rumors primarily results from the following:

1. False information arises from the limitations of individuals' cognitive ability.

It's entirely possible that different individuals could generate different degrees of false information about the same matter based on their different levels of comprehension, and we should understand the law as having a posture of appropriate tolerance towards individuals.

Take for example the case of the Wuhan public security organs punishing 8 people for publishing that there were "7 confirmed cases of SARS from the Huanan Fruit and Seafood Market." If we understand the law as applied mechanically, we can conclude that since Covid-19 is not SARS, it is certainly false to say that SARS has emerged in Wuhan, and this information has caused social disorder, so the legal requirements for acts of fabricating and transmitting false information are met, and there is a legitimate basis for admonishment or administrative and criminal penalties.

However, the facts show that although Covid-19 is not SARS, the content published by those releasing the information was not entirely made up. If at the time the public had heard and believed this 'rumor' and out of panic over SARS had begun to take measures such as wearing masks, strictly disinfecting, and avoiding wildlife markets, this might be good news for our better preventing and controlling Covid-19 today.

So, when dealing with false information, law enforcement organs should fully consider the degree of subjective malice that the person publishing or spreading the information had, as well as their ability to understand the matter. So long as the information is essentially true, the publisher or spreader had no malice, and the conduct did not objectively cause serious harm, we should maintain a tolerant attitude towards such 'false information'.

Trying to use the law to fight all information that does not completely fit the truth is not only legally unnecessary but also institutionally impossible. It could even end up having a negative impact on legal justice as over-censorship can be used as an example to undermine government credibility, as an ugly incident to undermine the Party's popular base, or as an excuse for attacks by hostile forces at home and abroad.

2. The source of false information is the lack of timely and transparent public disclosures.

Disclosures stop rumors. Based on their anxiety over their own safety, the public will panic to some degree in the face of public health emergencies, which is human nature and should be understood. If relevant information is promptly and fully disclosed at such times, the public's misgivings will be naturally reduced. However, if information disclosures are not timely or not transparent, then the public will readily believe and transmit various rumors based on their social circled and personal experience.

So, in terms of resolving the problem of rumors, using the law to address them cures a symptom, but information disclosures cure the cause. If we do a good job of information disclosures, the public will compare the disclosures with the rumors they've learned of on their own, and over time, when the public discovers that the information disclosed by the government is always accurate, the rumors will naturally lose their hold. On the other hand, if rumors are confirmed by actual conditions again and again, the public will naturally choose to believe rumors in emergencies. In this regard, officials at all levels cannot regard the information disclosure work as their special "fiefdom", but should also consider the issue from the perspective of the big picture of the Party and state's overall work.

We should take lessons from this struggle. When encountering a public health emergency, we should trust the majority of the public. It would be better the problem be seen as more serious, better the warnings were more stern, and better the situation be viewed as more severe, so as to stimulate the public to pay attention to the public health crisis and allow us to rely closely on the people to win this special battle.

4. False information arises in the special personal-media environment.

The media environment we face today is very different from that at the time of 'SARS'. During SARS, the idea of personal media didn't exist yet, and there were only the official media channels. At that time, forums, blogs, mobile phone text messaging and other non-traditional means of transmission existed, but their impact was extremely limited and was not sufficient to be a primary channel for information delivery.

Today, the situation has changed significantly. With the development of commercial media and the appearance of Weibo, WeChat, and the whole group of social media, people's information sources have become exceedingly diverse, and individual voices can be limitlessly spread through the internet. Individuals who are present in epidemic areas can more intuitively and directly communicate with the public through voice and video, breaking through the official media's domination of information transmission. Clearly, in this sea of information, any attempts at a cover-up are futile and traditional measures for information management and control are also difficult to implement effectively.

On the one hand, this is a sign of Chinese society's increasing maturity, freedom, and openness. On the other hand, this type of freedom also provides ground in which the transmission of false information may grow. This is our first time encountering this kind of major public health incident in the personal media environment, and this complicated situation is also a topic we must address in the course of governance today.

II. What information should be strictly combated?

The law doesn't need to fight against all untrue information, but in this special time of the decisive battle against Covid-19, there are some rumors that must be strictly combated.

By look at the cases investigated by each region's public security organs, we can see that the following types of information need to be strictly combated and may be given administrative punishments, or where the consequences are serious, they may be given criminal punishments as the crime of provocation and causing disturbances [picking quarrels] in accordance with article 5 of the "The Supreme People's Court and Supreme People's Procuratorate Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Applicable Law in Cases of Using Information Networks to Commit Defamation and Other Such Crimes".

1. Rumors involving the epidemic that cause social disorder.

For example, fabricating information that a certain area with no epidemic outbreak has had cases appear, causing social disorder. However, when law enforcement organs investigate this kind of case, they should fully review the subjective malice in the case and the objective impact that the actions caused. If there was not substantial subjective malice, the rumor was only transmitted within a small range of people, and the social disorder caused was relatively limited, then considering that such rumors can objectively have a positive impact by raising awareness of self-protection among certain groups, and that it is relatively easy to clarify these facts, the emphasis should be on criticism and education of those fabricating and disseminating the rumors, with administrative punishment as a supplement, and criminal punishment considered only in extreme cases.

2. Rumors slandering the nation's epidemic control as inadequate etc., that cause social disorder.

China is a socialist country and China's capacity for national mobilization is widely recognized and praised in the international community. Citizens with expert knowledge may submit their suggestions on how the nation can better carry out epidemic and control work thought proper channels, and their opinions can even include positive criticism. However, the unscrupulous fabrication of information such as that the country is inadequately controlling the epidemic, sent while knowing it is false and with an extreme amount of subjective malice and which is objectively easily able to cause social disorder, should be strictly dealt with in accordance with law, and pursued criminally when necessary.

3. Rumors making up that medical establishments have lost control of the epidemic, that treatment is ineffective, and so forth, that cause social disorder.

The public is greatly concerned about the treatment of the disease, the shortage of protections faced by medical frontline medical personnel, and the capacity of medical institutions to treat Covid-19. These feelings are understandable and legitimate demands can be expressed through legitimate channels. Scholarly criticism by relevant experts, academics or professionals on the above issues, is also within the scope of freedom of speech and should be protected by law.

However, given that epidemic prevention and control has already escalated to become a national action, the information on handling the epidemic and disease treatment should absolutely follow that from authoritative state channels. It is extremely easy for any fabrication or transmission of untrue information like that discussed above to cause massive public panic, and where there is deep subjective malice and huge social harm, it should be combatted in accordance with law.

4. Other rumors that easily cause disruptions in social order.

As social life is complex and new types of rumors continuously surface, the review of conduct in different circumstances should be through a comprehensive assessment of subjective malice and objective impact.

As rumors such as "rubbing balm under your nose can prevent Covid-19", "Gargle salt water to prevent pneumonia", or "drinking and smoking can prevent pneumonia" have a relatively low level of social harm and can't cause social disorder, legal penalties aren't appropriate, and they should be addressed with correct guidance and teaching science.

But other acts of wanton fabrication, such as exaggerating the number of disease fatalities or the fatality rate, and making up negative 'personal accounts' by doctors, should be strictly addressed by law as there is no positive intent at all and it could easily cause serious social panic.

III. Conclusion

The struggle against rumors is essentially a problem of how to win over the public. Today's China is based on openness and freedom, we do not carry out control of all untrue information. Clarifying some common-sense misconceptions depends on the efforts of the state on the one hand, but also on the people themselves.

But the virus today is a major test for the nation. At this moment, the fabrication and transmission of false information without good intentions should be decisively and forcefully combated, and this is the duty of the state's political-legal organs. On this issue, all people from all walks of society should have a clear understanding and must not be complacent.

Source: The People's Courts' News Media Headquarters

Author: TANG Xinghua | Editor: ZHAO Huifeng.

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One Comment

  1. Godfree Roberts Godfree Roberts 2020/03/26

    Many thanks for producing a translation that is both timely and graceful!

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