Over 180,000 in the United States, people have now died from the coronavirus, a horrific loss of life that contrasts starkly with the duration and severity of the pandemic in the rest of the world. Covid-19 “brought the most powerful country in the world kneelingWith everything from the Trump administration’s destructive response to an underfunded public health system to systemic racism and white supremacy woven throughout.
Throughout this crisis, but also in much of the world, there have been lies and disinformation. spread by the Commander-in-Chief on the ingestion of bleach; fabricated absurdities struck down through authoritarian propaganda media; lies rumor on Facebook or YouTube, or even in my own SMS inboxes. Along with these lies about the pandemic, the global censorship crisis is accelerating.
In many cases, illegitimately, governments have used claims of disinformation and disinformation, as well as claims about the need for emergency public health measures, to suppress the spread of information about coronaviruses within their borders. While not surprisingly, the trend underscores the need to understand censorship as an often complex and distributed process that is more than just a central entity ordering a block on a news website.
Back in February, after the death of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who had warned of the impending pandemic, the Chinese authorities scrambled to censor the online conversation of his death and the circumstances surrounding it. In Russia, the Kremlin used existing laws requiring social media platforms, even some based in the United States, to remove posts criticizing the government’s response to the coronavirus or even challenging its very likely minimized number of infections. These technical capacities, already established in the respective countries, were quickly mobilized against truthful information on the coronaviruses to protect the regime.
However, governments have used the coronavirus pandemic to develop new censorship tools and to exploit existing ones more frequently. The Attorney General of Russia, for example, said it issued more content blocking orders regarding Covid-19 in the first five months of 2020 than it did on any subject in 2019. Russian Parliament extended prison sentences for disseminating “false information” about the virus. In India, the Modi administration asked the Supreme Court in March to order news organizations to refrain from publishing information without verifying the government’s “real factual position”. The court’s decision did not follow the government’s request, but it also did not reject this blatant attempt at censorship.writing that “we do not intend to interfere with the open discussion on the pandemic, but that the media refer and publish the official version of the developments.”
These powers have been widely deployed against truthful information and real investigative reports. Authoritarian governments to have had genuine disinformation within their borders; a cell tower was would have ignited in Russia, for example, after false reports claimed 5G technology had spread the disease (close enough to a lie about 5G’s health effects, the Kremlin itself) spread in 2019). Disinformation in India, the world’s largest democracy, has spread out the coronavirus treatments, the nature of Italy’s lockdown and the hateful lies against the Indian Muslim community. But leaders in Russia, China, India and elsewhere have widely used claims of public health emergency and misinformation and misinformation to suppress free speech, especially what embarrasses or criticizes the state. The Modi administration, a propagator of hideous ethnonationalism, is not necessarily concerned about disinformation about Muslims, for example.
And the abuse of the coronavirus pandemic for censorship hasn’t always been top-down, and it hasn’t been exclusively technical. Ai Fen, who was monitoring the outbreak at Wuhan Central Hospital, suddenly became inaccessible for several days in April, after his outspokenness about the pandemic spread on social media. Chinese authorities detained citizens trying to broadcast live video from inside Wuhan. Iranian officials for follow-up doctors contradicting state lines, and journalists interrogates by the security services for making equally truthful statements criticizing the regime. The citizens of Russia and other authoritarian countries were likewise investigation or threatened to report facts that (rightly) make those in power look bad – but it has also happened to journalists and Indian citizens. Physical coercion, including by local authorities, has been a powerful complement to technical censorship measures.