Censorship of information is nothing new, but the natural fear on the rise from the state of the world today is giving rise to an alarming increase in restrictions. As communities tackle the question of opening back up, the internet abounds with contradictory, misleading, and even outright false information on COVID-19—an unsurprising reality as even leading epidemiological experts are still unable to fully understand the virus.
It is imperative that we examine the current state of coronavirus induced censorship. Awareness of “disinformation” is at an all-time high, bolstered by the view that those in power have the responsibility to protect us from dangerous false facts. Once immediate fear of the virus subsides, what will be the longstanding effects of the censorship that we have allowed to creep into our lives and feeds in the name of public health?
Social media has weighed in on everything from a tragic death due to chloroquine ingestion from a fish tank, to raging debate about face coverings, the right time to re-assimilate grandparents into social isolation “bubbles,” and the proper distance to stand in line at the grocery store. Disinformation logic justifies censorship to keep us safe in these scenarios, without regard for our fundamental freedoms of opinion and expression.
Tech companies are leading the assault on so-called disinformation. YouTube recently removed a video from Dr. Knut Wittkowski for opposing lockdown measures. What is at question here is not the validity of his claims, but the validity of preventing the individuals that amounted to his more than 1.3 million views from making their own determination as to his information. As evidenced by the company’s recent censoring of evangelical pastor John Piper’s book Coronavirus and Christ, YouTube’s actions extend far beyond mere public health information.
In what is perhaps the most shocking example to date, YouTube’s parent company, Google, removed a leading UK Christian magazine, Christianity, from its App store, simply for covering the pandemic in a recent issue. They were told: “Apps referencing COVID-19, or related terms, in any form will only be approved for distribution on Google Play if they are published, commissioned, or authorized by official government entities or public health organizations”.
It’s not hard to imagine how such a policy could extend beyond the current crisis, well beyond COVID-19.
Addressing the rise in coronavirus related censorship, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, has made clear that disinformation laws are incompatible with international human rights law and should be abolished. He cites laws in Ethiopia, France, Italy, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, and the UK as examples of such violations, noting that while some laws predated the pandemic, the virus has brought about a sharp increase in application and prosecutions—a“pandemic of repression”.
While proponents of censorship create a false dichotomy in which the right to freedom of expression simply cannot be upheld if we are to attend to public health, Kaye makes clear that there is no such mutual exclusivity, noting that, “when anchoring these questions in human rights law, it is possible to see that freedom of opinion and expression goes hand-in-glove with public health”.
Alas, that is not the approach being adopted by Big Tech, and increasingly, by many governments.
For example, Hungary recently hit the headlines during the height of the pandemic in Europe for amending its criminal code to put in place a possible sentence of up to five years incarceration for spreading false news about the pandemic.
In France, legislation known as the Avia law requires social media platforms to take down content flagged as “hateful” within 24 hours, with a fine as high as 1.25 million euros. The law, subject to months of protracted debate, was finally adopted at the height of the pandemic—indicative of an increased perception that now, more than ever, we need authorities to hold individuals accountable to the business of truth telling.
In Ethiopia, the government passed a highly-restrictive “hate speech” law several months ago imposing jail terms for disturbance-inciting social media posts, in addition to requiring tech companies to take down offensive posts. With the emergence of the pandemic, these restrictions have had alarming consequences. In March, journalist Yayesew Shimelis was arrested for terrorism and became the first Ethiopian to be charged via the new law. His alleged crime was posting on Facebook that the Ethiopian government was preparing graves for 200,000 corpses from the pandemic.
And in Nepal, a church pastor has been arrested for allegedly spreading misinformation about COVID-19—though the Nepalese lawyers seeking his freedom argue that he was merely preaching to his congregation and the police are using the pandemic as cover to target minorities.
Fear of the pandemic is creating an open door for big tech and big government to clamp down on speech and push the narrative that there is a “right way” of thinking about COVID-19 and a “wrong way”—and the wrong way must be silenced. The reality is that no amount of censorship can protect us from the pitfalls of bad information. As human beings capable of thought, opinion, and expression, our dignity demands that we have free access to information.