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.
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.