Last week Twitter suspended the account of a Chinese virologist named Dr. Li-Meng Yan after she gave a televised interview in which she claimed that the Chinese Communist Party intentionally released COVID-19 into the world. Facebook and Instagram subsequently added warnings to videos of the interview. These actions shed light on how mass corporate censorship is becoming routine for Silicon Valley’s monopoly platforms—even on matters of public health that affect the lives of billions of people. Also, they further illuminate the pattern of social media’s censorship of COVID-19 information—to protect and advance the interests of an elite whose center of gravity is its relationship with the CCP, America’s China class.
It will likely be impossible to ever prove Yan’s claim that Beijing intentionally disseminated the virus. Because China’s is an authoritarian, and communist, regime, it’s doubtful we’ll ever have sufficient insight into the decision-making of senior CCP officials. However, judging simply from China’s public actions, it’s also clear that senior officials saw the coronavirus as an opportunity to gain a step on the United States.
At the end of January, China cut off all internal travel from and to Wuhan, ground zero of COVID-19—while also demanding that international carriers maintain their scheduled flights in and out of the city. After Donald Trump banned travel from China for all but Americans returning home, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry criticized Washington: “The U.S. government hasn’t provided any substantial assistance to us, but it was the first to evacuate personnel from its consulate in Wuhan, the first to suggest partial withdrawal of its embassy staff, and the first to impose a comprehensive travel ban on Chinese travelers.” In other words, China not only knew it was distributing death to the rest of the world but complained when Trump moved to protect Americans.
The CCP has never given straight answers about the origins of the pandemic. The official story is that it began in a wet market in Wuhan, a claim that researchers have found to be improbable. When U.S. officials like Sen. Tom Cotton questioned if COVID-19 might have instead escaped from one of the two Wuhan labs that research coronaviruses, CCP deputies charged that the Americans were trying to mislead the world. Officials at China’s Defense and Foreign ministries then claimed that in fact it was the United States that had engineered the coronavirus to target China’s Han majority and had brought it to Wuhan on the backs of American servicemen during the Military World Games.
COVID-19 has left nearly a million dead across the world, but we still know relatively little about it. That the CCP has not only withheld important information but also waged an active disinformation campaign about the origins and effects of the virus has made it even more difficult for public health officials to understand what we are facing. For instance, more than seven months after the first COVID-19 fatality in the United States, there is still no consensus on important questions regarding prophylactics and treatments. The efficacy of masks and hydroxychloroquine, for instance, are both still broadly disputed. Federal, state, and local agencies have been inconsistent with the social distancing guidelines that they have issued to hospitals, workplaces, schools, and regarding public spaces.
Nor is there any consensus on the value of lockdowns. For instance, in January, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, presented the case against lockdowns and then moved to the pro-lockdown position without producing any evidence to explain what changed on the ground to change his mind. Sweden, which chose to forgo the tactic altogether, has fared better on deaths per capita than European countries that imposed severe lockdowns, like the U.K., Italy, and Spain. Nevertheless, social media platforms have used their monopoly power to attempt to enforce a false consensus on lockdowns, censoring opinions challenging the public health value of the massive work-stoppages that at one time left 23 million Americans unemployed and sent the world’s largest economy into a tailspin. When Americans rose to challenge the lockdowns imposed by their state governments, Facebook removed announcements for anti-lockdown protests. “Events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing,” said a company spokesman, “aren’t allowed on Facebook.”
Social media is exempt from the liabilities that dictate the financial and editorial decisions of regular publishers only because at the advent of the internet age U.S. lawmakers believed that service providers would ensure they remained a forum for wide-ranging opinions. Over the past several years, however, the internet marketplace of ideas has tended to give preference to certain ideas while it has removed others from the shelves. During the past seven months, the social media giants have used the pandemic to legitimize censorship under the guise of providing, in the words of one YouTube executive, “authoritative information” on public health and blocking contrary views, even those of medical experts.
A YouTube spokesman told The Washington Post that “from the very beginning of the pandemic we’ve had clear policies against COVID-19 misinformation and are committed to continue providing timely and helpful information at this critical time.” The company’s chief executive, Susan Wojcicki, elaborated, saying YouTube “focused on the stay at home messages” and would ban videos contradicting World Health Organization guidelines—even though the WHO’s record on the coronavirus has been as bad as the CCP’s, which some critics say controls the U.N. organization.
At the beginning of the pandemic, such measures might have been excused as the kind of overreach that is natural at the onset of a large, unexpected event threatening the health of billions of people. But as the pandemic wore on, the overreach extended even further, as tech executives arrogated to themselves the right to arbitrate ongoing scientific debates by censoring the informed views of medical professionals. In April, YouTube removed a video of two urgent care doctors in California who criticized the lockdowns. In May, the company removed a video of Knut M. Wittkowski, former head of biostatistics, epidemiology, and research design at Rockefeller University, who argued that the lockdowns were a mistake.
It is inconceivable how the studied opinion of the head of epidemiology at Rockefeller University could be considered misinformation. Rather, it appears the problem was that it challenged a political narrative that suited the interests of the social media monopoly. When the George Floyd protests erupted at the end of May and sent hundreds of thousands into the streets across major American cities, it became clear that censorship of lockdown critics had nothing to do with public health. Indeed, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all pledged support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which remains partially responsible for instances of arson, theft, assault, and murder that finished off a number of small businesses that managed to survive the lockdowns.
It is hardly surprising that China has used Silicon Valley’s monopoly platforms to promote the lockdowns and attack holdouts, like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. They have served as a deeply effective form of economic warfare that has devastated the American economy. Political commentators who believe the lockdowns were employed by Democratic officials to damage Trump’s chances at reelection misunderstand the nature of the conflict and the order of battle.
It’s not about Trump; it’s structural. The point is that Donald Trump is the first American president who chose to challenge China openly and promised to decouple American interests from those of the CCP. Thus, he touched on the core interests of the American political, corporate, and cultural establishment, led by the tech industry. The China class has become fantastically rich by doing business with the CCP, exploiting its huge and cheap labor force and tapping into an increasingly cash-rich Chinese market for cultural goods like NBA basketball, Hollywood movies, and artworks. By censoring criticism and suspicion of Beijing’s role in spreading COVID-19 while amplifying its propaganda, social media platforms are defending the interests of the American elite, which are aligned with China’s ruling party. To see it more clearly, think of the world’s richest man as the chief distributor for the CCP’s huge inventory of cheap goods. Amazon can’t afford to have Trump or anyone else sever its lifeline to the CCP, and the same holds for countless other American corporations.
Social media’s campaign of censorship is meant to obscure plain facts. Perhaps most relevantly, it doesn’t matter whether or not Beijing intended to cripple the United States with the pandemic, for the effect of its actions and the subsequent information campaigns amplified by the social media monopoly are indistinguishable from a military operation—leaving 200,000 Americans dead, tens of millions still out of work, and major U.S. cities and sectors of the real-world economy in ruins. It’s simple: Trump said he was going to go after China and China is fighting back. What complicates matters is that the U.S. political, corporate, and cultural establishment that purports to resist Trump because it is offended by his style or his social media presence is bluffing. The reality is that in the economic war between Washington and Beijing, America’s China Class is not on the same side as America.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).