On Jan. 23, we published an article about the barriers we as fact-checkers faced when trying to find information regarding eight people who had been arrested in the Chinese city of Wuhan during the first week of this year after spreading “false news” about a new and very dangerous virus. That day, 17 people had already died from the 2019 coronavirus and it was clear that those “misinformers” were actually alerting people about a real threat.
Now one of those “misinformers” is dead. Or is he?
The new disease that these eight were trying to warn people about has spread worldwide, killing 565 people. News broke today that 34-year-old Chinese doctor Li Wenliang was one of those taken into custody by the Wuhan police. Many media outlets have reported that he died from coronavirus.
The news spread across the globe, and Li’s name was even mentioned in Geneva during a press conference held by the World Health Organization.
“We are very sad to hear the loss of Li Wenliang,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director for the WHO’s Health Emergencies program, according to CNN’s website.
Those searching for data about the eight arrestees now raise three areas for discussion. First, it has become quite easy to learn about Dr. Li. There is plenty of information about him online. We can even see pictures of him.
The Singapore Strait Times, for example, says that Li leaves behind a child and a wife who is expecting a second baby in the summer. To illustrate the article, the publication even shows two photos of Li: one as a doctor, with glasses on, and one as a patient, already very sick.
The Guardian has a summary of what happened to the Chinese doctor during the last month of his life. Li “sent a message to fellow medics in a group chat on 30 December, and days later was summoned to the Public Security Bureau to sign a letter in which he was accused of making ‘false comments.’”
CNN said that Li was hospitalized Jan. 12 after contracting the virus from one of his patients, and he was confirmed to have the coronavirus Feb. 1. That’s a lot of information about a person whom fact-checkers just could find out nothing just days ago.
The second topic raised from Li’s death is the lack of information surrounding the other seven people who were taken into custody by the Wuhan police officers in January. Why is it still so hard to get their names? Are they also suffering from coronavirus?
The third topic is the amount of mis/disinformation that is already circulating in Weibo (a Facebook-like platform used in China) and in other popular Asian apps. There are even people questioning Li’s death.
The hashtag #李文亮仍在抢救# (#Li Wen-Liang is still under emergency, in English) has reached 100 million people on Weibo on Thursday and was used in 203,000 chats.
On Friday morning (2 a.m. Beijing time), Li’s death was actually being discussed with sorrow and anger. While some users and organizations were saying they wanted to send donations to support Li’s widow, others were questioning the lack of freedom of speech in China and demanding more data.
It was late at night in Asia when China Press Weekly, a Chinese state-backed media outlet, published an article saying that the Wuhan Central hospital had reported twice (at 9:24 p.m. and 11:56 p.m.) that their medical team was still making efforts to resuscitate Li. The news claimed an anonymous doctor from another hospital in Wuhan was saying that Li’s heart had stopped beating at 9:30 p.m., but he had been put on life support.
The article underscored the difficulty for fact-checkers to confirm information when they are not in Wuhan.
After midnight Beijing time, Wuhan Central Hospital posted that Dr. Li was “under emergency treatment,” feeding the state-run Chinese media narrative that Li wasn’t dead but still alive, albeit supported by machines.
An image showing what is supposed to be a message sent from the Chinese government to journalists became viral on social media. In the text, supposedly sent to editors-in-chief of different media outlets, the government suggests caution for those who report on Dr. Li’s situation.
As fact-checkers, we will follow this story, fact-checking hoaxes around it and trying to obtain data about the other seven “misinformers” from Wuhan.
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Summer Chen is the editor-in-chief of Taiwan FactCheck Center.