Censorship during the COVID era has included banning certain claims made on major social media if they contradicted the official health policy. Doctors who spoke out have had their accounts closed, and organizations, including America’s Frontline Doctors, even had their websites taken offline for challenging parts of the mainstream COVID narrative.
That was then, and while the censorship continues, it was largely done by private companies. Recently, governments themselves are getting more directly involved in the suppression of content they don’t like.
Last summer, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, said that Facebook has an obligation to use its power to promote quality information sources in their feed algorithm and that the White House itself was working with the company and even flagging “problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation”.
Just last week, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, took matters a step further and demanded that private tech companies submit to the government “exactly how many users saw or may have been exposed to instances of COVID19 misinformation, as well as aggregate data on demographics that may have been disproportionately exposed to or affected by the misinformation,” as reported in the New York Times.
In addition, the Surgeon General “demanded information from the platforms about the major sources of COVID-19 misinformation, including those that engaged in the sale of unproven COVID-19 products, services, and treatments.”
The government is now taking an active role in determining what is “misinformation” and demanding that private companies hand over user information of those who challenge the government’s idea of what is true or false.
Just a few weeks ago the Department of Homeland Security, in their National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, said that “The United States remains in a heightened threat environment fueled by several factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories, and other forms of mis- dis- and mal-information (MDM).”
And how are these ideas a threat to national security? The bulletin continues, “... the proliferation of false or misleading narratives, which sow discord or undermine public trust in U.S. government institutions...”
So, information that undermines trust in the government, is considered a security threat. It can be removed at the government’s request, and those who share it need to be reported to the authorities. All this because of a difference of opinion on what is true and false regarding how to treat and prevent a virus. None of this was done in the past for other viruses. Even during the riots in the summer of 2020 when there was a clear security threat, with leaders openly calling for violence the government didn’t call on big tech to report on their communications.
Censorship at the state level
At the state level, California is taking the lead with two pieces of legislation. Last month, Bill 1018 was introduced in the state senate that would “require online platforms like Facebook and Google to disclose the algorithms that determine which content users see… The platforms would also need to share their data with researchers,” as reported in the Sacramento Bee.
State Senator Richard Pan said that these disclosures would provide information that would allow lawmakers to better understand why COVID misinformation is so prevalent and how to prevent its spread.
If passed, the government would be receiving information about how private citizens are communicating with each other on topics the government considers false, for the expressed purpose of suppressing those communications.
Earlier in the government’s crackdown on dissenting views, doctors were a primary target, and so it continues with a new bill introduced in California’s state assembly, Bill 2098.
Section 2 states that “It shall constitute unprofessional conduct for a physician and surgeon to disseminate or promote misinformation or disinformation related to COVID-19, including false or misleading information regarding the nature and risks of the virus, its prevention and treatment; and the development, safety, and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.”
While the public deserves to have accurate information from their doctors, and on social media, these new government initiatives aimed at reducing misinformation, make the government the arbiter of what’s true and empower it to enforce that truth.
By any measure, these developments present a significant departure from the liberal-democratic principles of free expression.
Speaking out against censorship
“No matter which party is in power, the government cannot be trusted to label 'truth' or 'fiction' any more than Facebook or Twitter can,” tweeted the ACLU last July, when governments were merely working with tech companies to censor and not yet demanding.
Amnesty International complied a 40-page report documenting how governments across the world were using censorship and punishment, and how it has reduced the quality of information reaching people. While the report focused on the developing world, the principles apply universally.
“Winning the battle against the virus includes not just government-led actions, but also bottom-up approaches which can only come about if freedom of expression and access to information are enabled,” the report stated in its executive summary.
The dangers of censorship
Indeed, free expression has been at the core not only of free societies but of scientific progress. Scientific inquiry includes the questioning of current assumptions and understandings. There was a time when cigarettes were considered to be healthy and DDT was safe. These facts were challenged, perhaps were considered misinformation at first, but later accepted as scientific fact.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”
The same is true in the COVID-era. Scientists, including the WHO, believed that the virus originated naturally and were so sure of their assertion that they labeled opposing theories “misinformation”. These alternate theories were condemned and bans were put in place. Despite the bans, scientists communicated under the radar to investigate and find new evidence showing that the virus more likely originated in a lab. Eventually, the lab-leak theory proved to be a legitimate and plausible explanation, and the original scientists' conflicts of interest were revealed.
Nation-wide lockdowns were not considered to be an effective way of controlling respiratory illnesses and such policies were not included in pre-COVID national pandemic planning. One study considered the concept and concluded, “The negative consequences… are so extreme” that this measure “should be eliminated from serious consideration.”
With the emergence of COVID, the WHO and many other groups of scientists challenged that assertion and led the world to months of lockdowns and social restrictions. “Stay at home to save lives” was asserted as a scientific truth that should not be challenged. After enough scientists began challenging that notion, more research was done that showed lockdowns were indeed harmful and ineffective.
If the government’s censorship criteria were applied uniformly, both sets of scientists arguing for and against COVID’s origins, and the effectiveness of lockdowns, would be guilty of spreading “misinformation”.
In personal health, can differing opinions coexist?
Individual health decisions, perhaps even more than public health, allowed for differences of opinion in treatment and prevention of illness – at least before COVID. Doctors and patients used to be allowed to communicate regarding what seemed to be effective, and what was not.
With the government’s new war on “misinformation”, those discussions could be a thing of the past.
To treat COVID or other illnesses, some might recommend chicken soup, others vitamins and still others may choose a range of other “alternative therapies”. While any of these may be supported by some medical research, it's reasonable to say that the government should not determine which ones are “true” and prohibit discussion of the ones that are “false”.
Can differing opinions coexist? There are differences of opinion even among policymakers and qualified scientists, including on the very current issue of COVID vaccination for children.
The U.K.’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation's initial recommendation, Israel’s Public Emergency Council for the COVID-19 Crisis’ position, Florida’s surgeon general, and Norway’s official recommendation – all recommend against COVID shots for healthy children. According to the new legislation these doctors would be accused of “professional misconduct” and be subject to online monitoring by the government since their opinion differs from CDC and most other mainstream policymakers.
Another example is the use of ivermectin to treat COVID. While the National Institute of Health does not recommend “either for or against the use of ivermectin for the treatment of COVID-19,” numerous medical studies found it to be an effective treatment. Nevertheless, Twitter and other social media platforms have restricted sharing even published articles that support its use.
Censorship has its place to prevent clear direct and imminent harm or for other such unusual situations. The new government initiatives would stifle debate on the everyday issue of how to best prevent and treat a respiratory virus. While governments may believe they have all the truths about the origins, prevention, and treatments of COVID – the evidence shows they don’t.
Professor, writer, and constitutional expert, Alan Dershowitz, warned against censorship even for noble causes, saying, “... censorship laws are blunt instruments, not sharp scalpels. Once enacted, they are easily misapplied to merely unpopular or only marginally dangerous speech.”