Public Health

Was Censorship the Greatest COVID Threat to Freedom?

It wasn't just autocrats who were frequently tempted to address "fake news" about the pandemic through state pressure and coercion.


The Infodemic: How Censorship and Lies Made the World Sicker and Less Free, by Joel Simon and Robert Mahoney, Columbia Global Reports, 192 pages, $16

"We're not just fighting an epidemic," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, declared at the Munich Security Conference on February 15, 2020. "We're fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous."

Joel Simon and Robert Mahoney expand on that concept in The Infodemic: How Censorship and Lies Made the World Sicker and Less Free. Since Simon is a former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, where Mahoney currently serves as executive director, it is not surprising that they see state efforts to suppress inconvenient information as part of the problem that Tedros described.

That makes sense, since authoritarian governments in countries such as China and Russia contributed to the "infodemic" by censoring, discrediting, and intimidating journalists and other observers who tried to tell the truth about COVID-19. Meanwhile, these governments promoted their own version of reality, in which the pandemic's impact was less serious and the political response to it was more effective.

But folding censorship into the "infodemic" creates an inescapable tension, since democrats as well as autocrats were frequently tempted to address "fake news" about the pandemic through state pressure, if not outright coercion. The Biden administration, for instance, demanded that social media platforms suppress COVID-19 "misinformation," which it defined to include statements that it deemed "misleading" even if they were arguably or verifiably true.

The problem of defining misinformation is evident from the debate about face masks as a safeguard against COVID-19. After initially dismissing the value of general masking, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided it was "the most important, powerful public health tool we have." More recently, the CDC has acknowledged that commonly used cloth masks provide little protection, largely agreeing with critics whose statements on the subject had previously triggered banishment from platforms such as YouTube.

Simon and Mahoney make it clear that they do not favor state speech controls. But their concerns about the ways governments used the pandemic as an excuse to expand their powers are curiously limited. While they view censorship as beyond the pale, they are inclined to see other restrictions on freedom—even sweeping impositions such as stay-at-home orders and mass business closures—as justified by the public health emergency.

The authors try to reconcile this apparent contradiction by invoking Isaiah Berlin's distinction between "negative" liberty (freedom from government restraint) and "positive" liberty (self-realization or self-determination). Simon and Mahoney define positive liberty as "the ability to shape the destiny of [one's] own society and live by its laws," which is simultaneously narrower than Berlin's concept, more explicitly collectivist, and more clearly at odds with negative liberty. As they see it, your "ability" to obey democratically enacted laws advances positive liberty even when you view those laws as oppressive.

"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," Simon and Mahoney say. "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."

That's a confusing way to describe freedom of expression, which at bottom is a kind of negative liberty: freedom from prior restraint and from punishment for reporting information or expressing opinions that the government views as dangerous. For example, Simon and Mahoney describe the experience of the independent Chinese journalist Chen Qiushi, who was arrested because of his reporting from Wuhan—a classic violation of negative liberty.

Restrictions on negative liberty, "even severe ones such as lockdowns, are legitimized through the existence of positive liberty," Simon and Mahoney write, because "the people impacted are able to express their views" and "ultimately if they so wish to compel the government to change course." In other words, as long as citizens have an opportunity to choose, criticize, and change their leaders, it is not inherently problematic to force them to follow public health edicts they view as unnecessary, unscientific, or draconian.

If you oppose censorship as a violation of negative liberty, by contrast, you do not value freedom of expression merely because it is useful around election time or when people are trying to decide what safeguards make sense in response to an airborne virus. And while you probably will agree that such a situation can justify government intervention, since disease carriers pose a potentially deadly threat to others, you may still object to specific policies on the grounds that they unjustifiably restrict other rights, such as freedom of movement, freedom of religion, or freedom to earn a living.

Simon and Mahoney suggest that such rights can be vindicated through the democratic process. But that solution is plainly inadequate, since a majority may support policies that oppress a minority. In any case, COVID-19 control measures in democratic countries were not necessarily supported by popular majorities. For the most part, they were not even imposed by legislative majorities; they were instead the work of executive-branch officials such as governors, presidents, and prime ministers.

Voters might eventually have a chance to express their displeasure at such decrees. In New Jersey, for example, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was dismayed by his surprisingly narrow reelection victory last fall, which motivated him to relax his pandemic-related restrictions. Republican Glenn Youngkin's upset victory in Virginia's gubernatorial election likewise was seen partly as an expression of frustration with COVID-19 policies—in particular, a statewide mandate forcing students in K–12 schools to wear masks.

But between elections, citizens outraged by such edicts have little recourse unless they can persuade legislators to assert control, as happened in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, or obtain relief from the courts, as happened with pandemic-inspired restrictions on abortion and religious gatherings. Those interventions acknowledged the threat that government officials pose to civil liberties when they claim the authority to exercise extraordinary powers in response to open-ended emergencies they themselves declare.

Simon and Mahoney seem mostly blind to that danger, except when it comes to censorship and especially invasive kinds of COVID-related surveillance. They note the "untold hardship" caused by India's lockdown, which left migrant workers stranded without any means to support themselves or their families. But they think the main problem was that the policy was implemented too suddenly, not that it went too far.

"The nationwide lockdown was an unprecedented restriction on the liberty that Indian citizens enjoy in a democracy," Simon and Mahoney concede. "But it had a public health rationale, and many citizens, including health experts, believed it was warranted."

While they give Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a pass on his most dramatic and consequential response to the pandemic, Simon and Mahoney fault him for his "harsh reprisals" against journalists who questioned his policies. In addition to direct intimidation, Modi "relied on an army of online trolls who amplified his criticism of individual journalists, attacking them in the most personal and vile ways." In that respect, Simon and Mahoney say, Modi resembled Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump, "democratic populists" who minimized the seriousness of the pandemic, promoted misinformation, and viewed criticism as an intolerable affront.

In Trump's case, portraying "online trolls" as minions taking their orders from him is misleading, since he often seemed to take his cues from them instead. Trump's reluctance to promote vaccination while he was in office can be explained by his fear that it would anger his supporters—a realistic worry, given the hostile reaction he later received when he bragged about the vaccines his administration had expedited. And Trump initially supported lockdowns before declaring, presumably based on his reading of his base, that it was time to lift them.

If we imagine a polity where anti-vaxxers are in the majority, the already problematic idea that pandemic responses are validated by the democratic process becomes even harder to defend. And if the "infodemic" is mostly a spontaneous phenomenon, demands that governments do more to address it invite repressive responses similar to the ones that Simon and Mahoney rightly decry. The alternative—correcting misinformation by citing the evidence that contradicts it—is hardly a magic bullet. But at least it offers an opportunity to persuade people, which is how arguments are supposed to be resolved in a free society.