Halting disinformation in a time of pandemic: the need to tread very carefully

One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, so they say: so what about ‘disinformation’?

This contribution was published on The Hill Times on April 22, 2020

OTTAWA, CANADA — A newish term we have all begun to see much more often these days is that of ‘disinformation’ (aka ‘misinformation’). We all read about attempts by the Russians and other nefarious actors to influence the democratic process in the US and France by flooding the Internet with made-up stuff. At one point this was headline news and even raised in conjunction with a possible impeachment of a US president.

It is probable that the word means different things to different people but in essence it is the attempt to gain influence through the creation, distribution and promotion of lies. Sometimes these falsehoods are the work of states and at others that of individuals (or groups). They become dangerous, and hence of interest to governments, when they begin to have an impact on issues relating to public safety and/or national security.

One such instance of disinformation that has reached this level of effect is unfolding as I write. I am referring of course to the current COVID-19/novel coronavirus which is sweeping the world. The health consequences are dire enough – acute illness and death – as are those on our economy and national well-being.

As a result, states have a vested interest in trying to ensure that their citizens have the best (real or true) information at their disposal to make the best possible decisions, all aimed at lessening the damage wrought by the disease, which will lead to a return to normalcy, or the best proximity to ‘life before COVID-19’.

The types of lies that are rampant on social media and other platforms include things such as the contention that there is no health crisis requiring social/physical isolation, quack medical remedies (Indian hucksters are advocating cow urine as an antidote), claims that the virus is a bioweapon designed by any or all of the CIA, China or Bill Gates, the belief that this was all a plan by the ‘deep state’ to take away our freedoms, and so on.

According to Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc, the federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people. And it is eliciting opposing views from MPs.

In this light the state has both the duty and the right to take action to minimise, or better yet eliminate, these lies. It cannot allow coronavirus deniers to propagate their views as this will undermine the steps taken to ‘flatten the curve’. It has an obligation to shut down fake cures that could cause unnecessary death or injury. It has a need to tell citizens that there is no ‘grand plan’ (i.e. a conspiracy theory) to take over the world. All these are indeed both public safety and national security issues.

So, how far should or can a government go to achieve all these goals? Can it mandate the destruction of disinformation? Can it force social media outlets to monitor, identify and erase misinformation placed on their platforms? Can it ask citizens to snitch on those behind the flummery?

All very good questions that we need to ask if we want to maintain our liberal democratic societies. What, then, about legislation to give these measures the power of the law? That is what the Trudeau government appears to be considering.

According to Privy Council President Dominic Leblanc, the federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people. And it is eliciting opposing views from MPs.

This is not a question of freedom of speech. This is a question of people who are actually actively working to spread disinformation, whether it’s through troll bot farms, whether [it’s] state operators or whether it’s really conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc.

NDP MP Charlie Angus

Expressing a different view, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer stated that “We’re concerned when this government starts talking about free speech issues. They’ve got a terrible history over the past few years of proposing ideas that would infringe upon free speech. Any time this government starts talking about regulating what people can say and not say, we start off the conversation with a great deal of healthy skepticism.”

What then to do?

This is indeed a tricky issue. What constitutes ‘disinformation’ when it comes to COVID-19? Who decides? Who implements the removal of information? Does the law apply only to coronavirus fakery? What are the penalties for companies that do not act fast enough or at all? Social media platforms have taken unprecedented steps to fight misinformation online but some critics in Canada say they could still do more.

Perhaps the most fundamental question is whether Canadians want their government to act as a nanny state, a gatekeeper who decides what we can and cannot consume in terms of information. Are any of us ok with that?

Would a better solution not be to counter disinformation with better information? I see these efforts as a colossal game of Whack-a-Mole whereby the government and private sector are continuously taking down sites and posts only to see more proliferate. Hercules had an easier time with the Hydra!

I think we all agree that the crap out there on coronaviruses is not helpful. Less garbage is clearly better than more. But what is the best way to get to that goal?

Phil Gurski is the Director of the Security, Economics and Technology program at the University of Ottawa and a former strategic analyst at CSIS.

In this time of COVID-19, we have enough to worry about without freaking out about terrorism!

Even ISIS is afraid of COVID-19, suggesting we may not see an uptick in attacks seeking to take advantage of a possible skeleton crew in security and intelligence agencies.

The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving and governments are having a hard time keeping up with strategies to respond and react effectively to keep their citizenry safe. Read more about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and its ties with terrorism.

Phil Gurski
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2 thoughts on “Halting disinformation in a time of pandemic: the need to tread very carefully

  1. Hi Phil
    A couple of points. There is a huge difference between “disinformation” and “misinformation”, though the two terms are often elided, as you do largely because there is no settled definition. Some dictionaries treat them as synonyms.
    However, “misinformation” refers to false assertions or propositions (that is what information is) that appear to be true and which are presented by their proponents as true, but which are not true.
    However, the word does not necessarily carry any imputation about the belief state of the person presenting these propositions or assertions. The person may believe them to be true or perhaps does not know or care whether they are true. They may be presented with the intention to deceive and mislead; or the person may be just telling a story. “Misinformation” does not generally go to the state or intention of the person, rather it focuses on the truth status of the assertion or proposition. When there is a suggestion of intent, or it needs to be clarified, the term is often qualified with “deliberate” or “inadvertent”, “unintentional”.
    “Disinformation” also refers to false assertions or propositions (that is what information is) that appear to be true and which are presented by their proponents as true, but which are not true. In contrast, the focus is on the intention of the person providing the “information”. The suggestion is that the propositions or assertions are deliberately constructed to deceive and are deliberately intended to induce the recipient to believe what is not the case, and so deliberately intended to affect not only their beliefs, but attitudes, actions and emotions and manipulate the recipient. Hence, mis information may be a one off occurrance whereas disinformation is usually part of an organised activity. The classic recent example here is OP. INFEKTION, organised by the Soviets to induce people to believe the US created AIDS/HIV. A more laudible historic example was the GARBO operation, part of a huge disinformation campaign, that deceived the Nazis, specifically Hitler, as to the locations of the Allied landings in France in 1944.
    The term “disinformation” was, according to some histories, imported into English from the Russian, in the 1950s from which it was formed on the pattern of the Russian “dezinformatsiya”.
    Why is this lengthy disquisition important? Misinformation is part of life and there are few times when society would be justified in responding to it, except to correct the record, as it is usualyl unintentional and rests on gullibility. An example where a response is warranted is perjury in court. There, the act of providing misinformation, otherwise known as lying, must be punished so as to ensure truth will emerge through the judicial process.
    When there is an orchestrated campaign to manipulate, for instance processes, such as court cases, or populations,or groups, (that is engage in a disinformation campaign), there stakes are rather higher. A famous civil example is the campaign of disinformation mounted by executives of Air New Zealand to conceal the true cause of the 1979 air disaster on Mt Erebus. Mr Justice Mahon, who conducted the Royal commission into the accident and the air accident investigation, described the company officers as engaging in an “orchestrated litany of lies”.
    So what should governments do? When there is a lot at stake, governments can respond by correcting the record and exposing the perpetrators. This has been done, specifically in respect of the Russian Internet Research Agency and its interference in the 2016 US election. Russian linked groups are also reported to have interfered in other elections too. And this is what is happening in the present, in respect of COVID-19 disinformation, being peddled by Russian domiciled interests and also Chinese linked interests.
    Would removing – or taking down – the perpetrators and their products constitute an infringement of freedom of speech, particularly if the individuals are actually in the jurisdiction of the target government? It would depend.
    Speech has always had limits. You are not permitted, even in the USA, from entering a cinema and shout, “Fire”; or utter words that incite violence or uttering words that are so inflammatory that they induce a panic. The idea is that a right to “freedom of speech” does not protect speech that is false and causes violence, harm or civil commotion. “Knowingly false statements of fact are often constitutionally unprotected — consider, for instance, libel, fraud, perjury, and false light invasion of privacy. That would presumably apply to knowing falsehoods that cause a panic. … Such knowing falsehoods that are likely to cause tangible and immediate harm are likely to be punishable. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/05/11/shouting-fire-in-a-crowded-theater/]
    “Knowingly” does the work here. If the speaker – or writer – does not knowingly understand the assertions or propositions are false, they may get off the hook.
    But the important point is that when assertions or proposition are false and acting on them may cause societal harm, even if the speaker or writer believes them to be true (i.e. anti-vaxxers) the state does at least have a moral right, if not actual duty to act not only to correct the record but remove the material – and go after the authors. The test must be harm to the society. In war time, rumour, spreading discontent through false assertions and so on may fall within the purview of this limitation, but only because the context is wartime and the damage such actions can cause. Similarly, at the moment, with COVID-19, it seems to me the state has a moral duty to act to not only correct the record but remove the material. At present, the stakes are so high. And if the people spreading the falsehoods will not stop or are unreachable, then the state is justified in taking them off the air.
    But, as JS Mill would say, whether it is a good idea to go ahead and do that, that is engage in Active Measures, is an entirely different matter.
    Anyway, my two cents worth.
    Thanks for pod cast; I’m in purdah at the moment from COVID-19 and your pod casts and articles provide welcome relief from the cat videos.

    1. First to the end of your comment – I am pleased that my podcasts and articles provide relief from ‘cat videos’. I now know that I serve a purpose!

      As to your distinction between dis- and misinformation you are absolutely right that the difference is important. I find that in an article for The Hill Times one does not have the time to make that distinction clearly and I erred in conflating the two.

      Thank you for taking the time to remind me of that.

      All the best!

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