The Man Who Cried Radiation

The boy who cried “wolf!” met an unfortunate end.  Last week, the man who cried “radiation!” did too.

According to a recent Reuter’s article, a Chinese man in the Zhejiang province, Chen, was jailed for 10 days and fined 500 yuan for spreading online rumors that Japanese radiation had contaminated Chinese waters.  Chen posted a note via an online-message board to urge his family members and friends to stockpile salt, to avoid seafood, and to spread the message.

Censorship and individual liberties are clearly the defining issues in this case; however, the more interesting question is whether is posting “RADIATION” on the internet is the same as screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theatre.  Is one more morally “okay” than the other?

I think that there are two key distinctions between the two.  First: intentionality.  Whereas screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theatre is meant to incite panic and induce chaos for the fun of it, Chen’s radiation scare was an honest mistake (or so he claims).  Chen admitted to finding the information on the internet and passing it along to his family and friends “without thinking.”  One could even argue that if Chen truly believed the online message boards, he had a moral obligation to spread the information to protect his family members.  Had Chen been propagating these rumors maliciously, he would have been morally condemnable, but given his honest mistake and his intention to protect his family members, his blunder should have been pardoned.

Moreover, the nature of the internet is much different than that of a crowded theatre.  A theatre is enclosed, dark, and isolated.  A cry of “FIRE” would naturally induce chaos, mob mentality, and a threat to public safety.  The internet, however, is a free open space.  Sure, there are people who take whatever they read for the truth online, but the very nature of a posting on a message board screams, “TAKE ME WITH A GRAIN OF SALT.”  In a crowded theatre, when someone screams “FIRE,” the natural response is to flee, not to respond, “NO THERE’S NOT!”  On the internet however, for every radiation scare post like Chen’s, there are an equal number of rebuttals and postings mocking the radiation scare.  Although the internet is more accessible than a crowded theatre, its openness and room for contention makes a less dangerous medium (for temporary scares). The bottom line is this: Chen’s post, although founded in ignorance, is by no means a public safety threat.

Although it would be nice if only true information were posted on the internet, we cannot all be held accountable for the veracity of posts.  To expect this would be to move into a cyber-big-brother society.