The coronavirus pandemic has caused governments all over the world to introduce drastic emergency measures, suspending many of the freedoms that citizens normally take for granted. Many of these measures are necessary in order to save lives. To flatten the curve through social distancing, we must be willing to sacrifice certain liberties for the safety of our colleagues, friends, and family.
However, an increasing number of governments are also using the current health emergency to suppress criticism and undesirable information through the proliferation of laws against disinformation. Free speech advocates have long warned against so-called fake news bans, fearing that they would prove to be, at best, a well-intended but ill-conceived effort to address a real problem and, at worst, another weapon in the authoritarians arsenal. Examples abound of these laws applied as a weapon against critics and dissidents, rather than a balm for misinformation. In countries such as Egypt and Singapore, applications of fake news restrictions have led to troubling prosecutions oflawyers,anti-harassment activists,opposition politicians, andwatchdog groups.
The current coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly resulted in the viral spread of misinformation, a veritable infodemic that poses a challenge to containment efforts. Yet the fears that fake news laws are an antidote whose side effects may be worse than the disease are being borne out. Across the globe, illiberal leadersfacing questions about their preparedness to deal with a pandemic that has killed nearly 45,000 people, at a time when too few states appear to be equipped for the challengesee fake news bans as convenient tools to suppress criticism and accurate information just as readily as misinformation.
In Cambodia,Human Rights Watch foundthat at least 17 people have been arrested on fake news charges for comments they made about the coronavirus. The detainees include four members or supporters of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), all of whom remain in pretrial detention, as well as a teenage girl who was arrested and subjected to police questioning about her social media posts expressing fear about potential positive diagnoses in her area.
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In Thailand, aman was arrestedafter complaining on Facebook about a lack of preventative measures at Bangkoks Suvarnabhumi Airport. He wrote that the airport did not enforce any coronavirus screening against him or his fellow passengers returning from Barcelona, even though Spain now has more coronavirus cases than China, the original epicenter. His arrest is part of a larger effort to crack down on alleged misinformation, which happens to include criticism of Thailands response to the outbreak. These efforts include threats of lawsuits, firings, and punishment against journalists and medical staff who have pointed out the strain that the coronavirus is placing on the countrys public health system.
Turkey has unfortunately become infamous for its suppression of criticism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So its unsurprising that, as of a March 16report, authorities had identified at least 93 suspects allegedly responsible for unfounded and provocative social media comments about the coronavirus, and they had arrested 19 of them. Reuterswritesthat the Turkish interior ministry was acting to arrest social media users whose posts were targeting officials and spreading panic and fear by suggesting that the virus had spread widely in Turkey and that officials had taken insufficient measures. But, only 10 days later, the New York Timesreporteda marked surge in Turkish coronavirus cases, outstripping rates in most other countries. While this is obviously politically inconvenient for the Turkish government, it might not be false, then, to suggest that Turkey, like the United States, Italy, and Spain, is insufficiently prepared for the threat of the coronavirus.
A number of other authoritarian and illiberal states such as Egypt, Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran, the Philippines, Honduras, and Singapore are taking similar steps byharassing journalists,adopting new lawsspecifically aimed at suppressing fake news, or using existing onesto targetundesirable content on social media.
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However, even countries formally committed to democracy have been infected with the irresistible urge to fight the coronavirus with censorship. On its officialhome page,the South African government warns: Anyone that creates or spreads fake news about the Coronavirus COVID-19 is liable for prosecution. In Indias Himachal Pradesh state, a journalist was arrested on charges of spreading fake news about COVID-19 on social media.
And in Hungary, where democracy has long been in decline under the illiberal government of Prime MinisterViktor Orban, the coronavirus outbreak has offered Orban another opportunity to cement and drastically expand his authority. On March 30, the countrys parliament passedan emergency bill that gives Orban sweeping powers to rule by decree, without a clear cut-off date, according to the Guardian. One terrifying provision of the law? Theintroductionof prison terms of up to five years for anyone publicising false information that alarms the public or impedes government efforts to protect people, the Guardian reports. This bill, with its vague and broad definitions, is a gift to a proven authoritarian who has already made clear his distaste for journalists and critics.
The censorship bug has spread to social media platforms themselves. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter walk a tight line between ensuring the spread of vital information to affected populations and limiting the virality of potentially harmful disinformationsome of it state-sponsored. But due to lockdown measures, the use of automated content moderation has increased on social media platforms where algorithms, rather than humans, have removed well-researched journalistic coronavirus stories from media outlets including the Atlantic and the New York Times. This unintended consequence vividly demonstrates the dangers of erring on the side of censorship in times of even real emergencies.
Its true that many social media postsand even government statementsabout the coronavirus have been unwittingly inaccurate or, worse, intentionally false and intended to spread panic or bigotry. All may be deserving of responses, whether to ensure dangerous medical disinformation is countered with facts or to show support for groups that have been targeted with racist rhetoric. But fake news bans, and the harm they inflict upon civil society and aid they provide to authoritarians, are too tough a pill to swallow.
At a time when information and transparency are necessary to combat this pandemic, it is vital that government-led censorship be identified, exposed, and rejected. The devastating effects of censorship during Chinas initial outbreak make this clear. Had China not engaged in censorship of information it claimed to be false in nearly every step of the outbreakthreatening or silencingdoctors, whistleblowers, journalists, and social media usersits possible that its citizens wouldve been more prepared and taken better precautions that wouldve limited the spread. (This, of course, does not absolve such leaders as U.S. President Donald Trump who are responsible for their own failures to sufficiently prepare for the outbreak or warn their citizens about its dangers.)
The idea that governments should tolerate even false and misleading information is deeply counterintuitive at a time when people around the world are desperate for certainty and reliable information about an outbreak threatening millions of lives. In such times it is tempting to demand prompt and urgent action to combat those who undermine national and global efforts through disinformation. However, the feedback loop of informationmuch of which will be unreliable or wrongis critical in efforts to identify the most efficient responses and communicate them to the public.
Harsh and unprecedented measures are needed to combat the coronavirus. But censorship is not part of the cure, and the more authoritarians use it, the more well see that its a symptom of another disease.
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