As COVID-19 spread around the world, so did government censorship. The Infodemic lays bare not just old-fashioned censorship, but also the mechanisms of a modern brand of “censorship through noise,” which moves beyond traditional means of state control—such as the jailing of critics and restricting the flow of information—to open the floodgates of misinformation, overwhelming the public with lies and half-truths.
Joel Simon and Robert Mahoney, who have traveled the world for many years defending press freedom and journalists’ rights as the directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists, chart the onslaught of COVID censorship beginning in China, through Iran, Russia, India, Egypt, Brazil, and inside the Trump White House. Increased surveillance in the name of public health, the collapse of public trust in institutions, and the demise of local news reporting all contributed to help governments hijack the flow of information and usurp power. Full of vivid characters and behind the scenes accounts, The Infodemic shows how under the cover of a global pandemic, governments have undermined freedom and taken control—this new political order may be the legacy of the disease.
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|Publisher:||Columbia Global Reports|
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About the Author
Robert Mahoney is Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He was a Reuters correspondent with postings in Southeast Asia, West Africa, India, Israel, France and Germany. This is Robert’s first book. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
This book chronicles the way in which censorship was deployed in countries around the world in response to an unprecedented threat to public health. Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an infodemic, a deluge of lies, distortions, and bungled communication that obliterated the truth. This infodemic did not spring from thin air. By suppressing the news and manipulating the public, governments helped fuel the infodemic, and then exploited it to deflect criticism and consolidate power. It was not just misinformation that undermined the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was censorship.
It was censorship that turned a terrible disease into an assault on rights, as governments suppressed not just speech but a broad range of political activities. Instead of communicating openly with citizens, governments suppressed critical information or actively misled or confused their citizens, a strategy that has been dubbed “censorship through noise.” In response to the pandemic, many governments increased surveillance, in some cases introducing new technologies that offered limited public health benefits but allowed authorities to track people’s every move. In democracies, governments relied on a more sophisticated and increasingly effective means of censorship, drowning the truth in a sea of lies. The intersection of new communication technologies, declining public trust, and collapsing local media made these techniques exceedingly effective. The result is that people around the world are not only less healthy. They are less free.
Despite their vastly different experiences with COVID-19 and their different political systems, most governments were united in a shared desire to downplay the threat of the disease and cover up their own incompetence. In order to succeed, they had to silence the experts and censor the independent journalists who amplified their voices. As a disease, COVID-19 was uniquely suited to such an endeavor. The symptoms often matched those of a bad flu, and the most severely afflicted were the elderly and people with underlying health conditions— meaning that ravages of the disease could be camouflaged or hidden from public view, at least for a period. The dynamic played out differently in different countries depending on the nature of the political system, the level of infection, and the characteristics of the country’s political leaders. But the game plan was remarkably similar: suppress, marginalize, minimize, undermine, deny, and confuse.
COVID-19 first emerged in China, one of the most heavily censored places on Earth. China covered up the initial outbreak by silencing doctors and by hunting down and jailing the small group of independent bloggers who documented events in Wuhan. From China, censorship spread along with the disease to Iran, Egypt, Russia, and across the authoritarian world, where governments not only suppressed critical coverage but used the public health emergency as a pretext to usurp power, implementing new laws limiting assembly and speech. In populist-led democracies—Brazil, India, and the US—governments relied less on brute repression and more on the techniques of modern censorship, which involves confusing and manipulating the public by discrediting and undermining independent voices. Misinformation is a tool of the new censorship, but it is also a by-product, as rumors, lies, and distortions fill the void when governments mislead the public. The pressure on social media companies to curb the spread of misinformation on their platforms was an understandable response when lies were literally killing people, but empowering Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to remove political speech may ultimately play into the hands of the state. It’s all part of a global political shift in which governments increasingly have the upper hand.
It was censorship—both the crude and the modern kind— that made it possible for governments to undermine public trust while asserting new powers. But of course governments needed to consider the use of certain authorities in order to fight the pandemic, including restricting movement, and implementing mask and vaccine mandates. While the legitimacy of such efforts provided cover for governments that sought to use their expanded powers to curb dissent, it also made it difficult for defenders of civil liberties to draw a bright line between necessary restrictions and those that were excessive or opportunistic.
One framework for evaluating the legitimacy of government actions during the pandemic is to determine whether they were legal. Under international law, governments have the right to impose temporary restrictions or even suspend certain rights in response to threats to public health. To do so legally, they must first declare a state of emergency, and show why severe restrictions are necessary. The problem with relying on such international legal standards is that most governments do not abide by them even during the best of times. Because the COVID-19 pandemic represented a clear threat to public health, one requiring government intervention, some actions taken by governments may have been legitimate but not legal. Others, conversely, may have been legal but not legitimate.
The most nuanced framework for evaluating restrictions on freedom in the context of the pandemic is positive and negative liberty. This concept, as developed by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is sometimes expressed as freedom to and freedom from. Berlin outlined his ideas in a series of lectures delivered at the height of the Cold War and later assembled in a 1969 volume entitled Four Essays on Liberty. There is an “open war that is being fought between two systems of ideas which return different and conflicting answers to what has long been the central question of politics—the question of obedience and coercion,” Berlin wrote. “Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else? Why should I not live as I like? Must I obey? If I disobey, may I be coerced? By whom and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?
Negative liberty, in its most reductive sense, is freedom from government constraint. All people must be protected against a range of government intrusion on their physical person and into their ideas and thoughts. Positive liberty, on the other hand, is the ability to shape the destiny of their own society and live by its laws. Both negative liberty and positive liberty are essential, but they sometimes conflict. For example, the original US Constitution provided a blueprint for the exercise of democracy, including legal protections against intrusive government power. It also preserved and sanctified the most egregious violation of negative liberty, slavery. The concept of positive liberty can also be abused. Totalitarian and authoritarian forms of government generally justify their exercise of power, including imposing restrictions on political participation, in order to achieve some worthy social purpose—ensuring economic growth, providing more equitable distribution of resources, or defending against an external threat.
Applying Berlin’s framework to the debate about COVID-19 and mask-wearing, the writer and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah noted “the trouble is that we usually don’t think hard enough about all that’s actually required to live free,” adding, “There’s precious little freedom in the sick ward and less still in the graveyard.” Also drawing on Berlin’s framework, as well as their experience as a Russian emigré and their research on the threat of creeping authoritarianism, New Yorker writer Masha Gessen argued that, “For a sense of common cause to appear, there has to be a sense of us: a community that is facing a threat and mounting a response. But we have vastly different experiences of the pandemic and vastly different expectations of the government.”
To boil down Berlin’s argument and place it in the context of the pandemic, the legitimacy of a government’s efforts to restrict negative liberty is derived from the existence of positive liberty, as expressed through the consent of the governed. The right to speak, to listen, to express and exchange ideas, to communicate closely held beliefs, to criticize authorities, to demand accountability: these are the broad range of activities enabled by positive liberty. The act of censorship is thus a direct assault on the most precious form of freedom, and opens the door to broader restrictions on fundamental rights. In other words, in order to assess the legitimacy of a specific government action taken during the pandemic one must examine not the action itself, but the broader context. Restrictions on positive liberty, even severe ones such as lockdowns, are legitimized through the existence of positive liberty, in which the people impacted are able to express their views, and ultimately if they so wish to compel the government to change course. Restrictions imposed under a veil of censorship are never fully legitimate even when they achieve their stated purpose of protecting public health. In making any judgments about the legitimacy of state action in the context of the pandemic, one must look at both positive and negative liberty and understand the ways in which they interact.
The relationship between the pandemic, censorship, and the assault on rights may be counterintuitive, especially to those in the United States who experienced a deluge of information rather than a drought. But any confusion is based on a misunderstanding of how modern censorship works, and how it is linked to state power. The Soviet Union was built around a top-down information management system that allowed the government to impose a single narrative in the absence of any independent voices. Today, even in China, people have access to enormous quantities of information and a range of views. China readily deploys the repressive power of the state, but even there, day-to-day censorship more often consists of drowning out and controlling competing voices so that the government narrative prevails. Strategies can include manipulating social media; controlling traditional media through regulation and advertising pressure; and orchestrating state-sponsored harassment campaigns to undermine and marginalize critics. The result is the same one achieved in the Soviet Union, which is the triumph of the government narrative. Once the narrative is set, then other restrictions on rights are easier to achieve.
The Infodemic explains how the manipulation of information opened the door to an assault on rights as well as the independent institutions, including the media, that ensure accountability. It tells the story of how the pandemic changed the world not as a result of the disease itself but because of political leaders’ response. As the threat to public health recedes, these politically charged changes risk becoming the pandemic’s legacy. It’s a future we can avoid only if we are willing to stand up for our right to speak freely.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Censored in China 17
Chapter 2 The Authoritarian Playbook 36
Chapter 3 The Democratic Populists 62
Chapter 4 State Surveillance 80
Chapter 5 Trust Me 102
Chapter 6 The Local Angle 122
Chapter 7 The Meaning of Freedom 142
Further Reading 159