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In May 2020, Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan disappeared in Wuhan, China, before formally being charged with suspicion of 'picking quarrels and provoking trouble'. In December 2020, a Chinese court sentenced Zhang to four years in prison for reporting on the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Zhang, a former attorney, had traveled from her home in Shanghai to document events on the ground in Wuhan, where the COVID-19 pandemic first emerged. She posted videos via her YouTube channel that angered Chinese officials, as the videos debunked the official narrative of maintaining control of the spread of the virus. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intended to silence her and other independent journalists. The Global Times, a news outlet controlled by the CCP, went so far as to say that Western Powers were to blame for Zhang's troubles, as seen in the video below.
Zhang's story is not unique. The CCP has gone to great lengths to control the propaganda narrative regarding the origins of the novel coronavirus and the Chinese government's response. From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Chinese social media actively censored information about the virus. The Chinese government continues to thwart international efforts to search for the origin of the coronavirus. China continues spreading misinformation about the origins of the virus, claiming the virus originated outside of China. Chinese censorship regarding the novel coronavirus has devastated the world, as Chinese efforts to keep the virus secret allowed it to spread worldwide. Preventing honest discussions on the origin of the virus prevented the world from understanding and containing the spread.
Censorship and centralized control of information are characteristics of all socialist nations. By maintaining centralized control of information, production, and power, authorities can maintain their control over the population. This makes socialist countries fragile, as they cannot advance or adapt to changing conditions. Resilient societies value freedom of speech, of the press, and religion. The right to be wrong is our greatest freedom. Freedom of thought makes societies more resilient. New ideas challenge the status quo in the free market of ideas. Bad ideas fail, while good ideas survive the market of ideas, strengthening the overall body of knowledge in the marketplace. Society becomes stronger by considering, testing, rejecting, and embracing new ideas.
As the United States descends into socialism, we have seen increasing hostility to freedom of thought. While the constitution still guarantees freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion, even these have come under increasing attack. We have become overly reliant on very few platforms to express and learn about new ideas. We have become vulnerable to cronyism between big business and big government, which stifle the free market of ideas. "The very fact that the mass media, including newspapers and magazines, are owned by large monopolies determines the selection of material to be published and the weeding out of information that is unfavorable to the ruling class," according to an article on censorship from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. What the Soviets saw in 1979 is even more true today, as a handful of news and social media platforms control the narrative, divide people ideologically, and clamp down on dissent. This stifles the free exchange of ideas, stunts our growth as a society, and directly leads to the increasing violence we see today.
Censorship in the U.S. is not yet as pervasive as in China. Indoctrination in our children's' schools is still not at the level of Cuban schools. We don't yet have to worry about being sent to the Gulags as was the fate of 18 million Soviets. However, the threat of censorship in the U.S. is real and increasing. We must act now. Our message must become more resilient to protect our freedom of thought. Below are three key steps to make your message more resilient.
Make sure your message adds value. Ideas operate under the same market forces of supply and demand. We have an overwhelming supply of ideas, but a severe shortage of demand. Too many people are yelling, and not enough people are listening. If you want people to hear your message, first make sure your message is worth hearing. This is not to say that you should censor yourself, or restrain yourself from fear that people might get angry. Instead, this first step ensures that your message is clear, constructive, and benefits those who receive it. Before sharing your idea, take a moment of honest self reflection about your message. Is your idea based on anger or hate? Could someone possibly misinterpret your idea? They almost certainly will. Have you tested your idea with alternate perspectives? How will the knowledge you share improve the world for your recipients? The marketplace for ideas is brutal. It mercilessly tests ideas submitting them to ridicule, rebuttals, and opposing views. Society as a whole wins as weaker ideas die, while stronger ideas become pervasive. Be prepared to personally come under attack for your ideas, as those who disagree may label you a racist, a sinner, an idiot, or any number of verbal attacks that may or may not have merit. If your idea creates value, it will be worth sharing. The idea does not even have to be your own. If someone else's idea creates value, spread their message.
Maintain resilient messaging platforms. Our news sources have become more vulnerable, as most people have become reliant on very few platforms to share and receive news. A handful of companies control nearly all social media and news outlets. If you rely on these monopolies, you become vulnerable to receiving only the information, and only the interpretation that they want you to have. They can ban or censor you much more easily than you can replicate your message. Think about your various phone numbers, email addresses, social media accounts, websites, and personal interactions. Can you replicate your contact list if you were to lose them on one platform? Do you have backup contact lists? If you lost your phone, would you know how to get in contact with someone? Could you maintain communication if you suddenly lost one of your platforms? You can increase your resilience to disruptions by branching out to other platforms. During the height of Soviet censorship, underground newspapers and magazines known as Samizdat flourished. Samizdat included the politically-minded essays and newsletters, novels, poetry, and banned foreign works which circulated among dissident and intellectual classes in the Eastern Bloc. We have many more alternatives available to us today than Soviets in the Eastern Bloc had. The current pace of technology increasingly gives us new alternatives, as new platforms, encryption, and virtual private networks (VPNs) provide additional layers of security to our messaging. In the near future, we can look forward to space-based hosting options that will free us from earth-based control. This will open new venues for communication, banking, and ideas.
Make a point of exposing yourself to other views. As mentioned above, there are too many people yelling, and not enough people listening. The great disappointment of social media is that rather than draw us together, it separated us all based on differing views. Too often we fall for the fallacy that those who who disagree with us are intellectually or morally inferior. We fail to account for the fact that different people will have different perspectives, and a diversity of perspectives actually make us a more resilient society. If you only read what you already believe, how will you learn? If you only listen to those you agree with, how will you grow? Make an effort to read a book by an author you disagree with. Listen to someone who holds views completely different from your own, even if (or especially if) you find those views abhorrent. Ask them to explain their perspective, and just listen without interruption or trying to disprove them. You may find that even when given a fair chance, their evidence did not convince you to change your views. In that case, you win. Or you could find that they have valid points you had not previously considered, and your views may change. In that case, you win. When you consider alternate views, you win, regardless of whether or not you change your beliefs. You may gain an appreciation of a different perspective, or find common ground in other areas.
To preserve our free society, we must preserve the free flow of ideas. Freedom of speech is meaningless if it only applies to ideas we agree with. If we lose the freedom to disagree, or the right to be wrong, we will lose our country. As those in power in the government and tech giants increasingly collude to maintain their control, we will continue to watch our individual freedoms slip away.
It is not too late. We can still push back against the increasing threat of censorship and centralized power. We need to use our voices while we still can. We still have many options available to us. Find what works for you, and contribute to the dialogue. Former Democratic Congresswoman and Presidential Candidate Tulsi Gabbard shared her views of the threat big tech and social media companies pose to our freedom, and her thoughts on how to push back against this threat. Check out her video below.