Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine there was a burgeoning global pandemic in a world in which there was also a universally accessible publishing platform without editors or regulation. Now, imagine some of the most influential contributors on that platform were spreading misinformation about the response to the contagion. Their conduct carries obvious risks: governments are dependent on public trust to ensure life-saving advice is heeded. In health emergencies, government can usually expect citizens’ in-built cynicism to be tempered by concern about the crisis at hand. But what if influential users of the publishing platform, through negligence or malice, caused public confidence to corrode in dangerous ways? What if the population started to disregard government advice and so frustrated efforts to contain the virus? Is there then a case for punitive regulation or even censorship of the publishing platform?
I ask because my hypothetical isn’t as hypothetical as it might be. Twitter is whizzing with retweets of a video of Boris Johnson appearing to recommend that Coronavirus be allowed to tear through the masses:
‘One of the theories is that, you know, perhaps you could sort of take it on the chin. Take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population.’
This clip has been shared by every blue-tick progressive you can imagine. The problem: it cuts right before the next two sentences, in which the Prime Minister dismisses the preceding theory. He concludes:
‘I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now just to, you know, stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it would, but I think there are things that we may be able to do.’
Watched in context, it’s clear he was characterising a mistaken approach and then debunking it. In the truncated clip, it seems like he urged the very policy he actually dismissed. Going by the fitful denunciations of Johnson by the great and the good of the Twitterati, it’s clear most were either unaware of the Prime Minister’s full comments or didn’t care to find out.
It’s in the nature of Twitter — and political tribalism — to think the worst of those we disagree with and merrily repost anything, however dubious, that casts them in the worst possible light. Ordinarily this matters as much as Twitter usually does – which is not at all. But now there’s the small matter of a killer virus and the potential for drastic human, social and economic consequences. Those who take the clipped video (and the tweets about it) at face value, may decide to stop listening to the Prime Minister’s public statements as they are the inaccurate assertions of a fool or a madman. Worse, others may disregard the critical commentary and, seeing the Prime Minister appear to recommend a course of action, decide to act accordingly. The consequences of doing either could be deadly.
Government may not be able to control the Wuhan virus but the most efficient way to control the outbreak of misinformation would be to take remedial measures against Twitter and other social media sites. Whitehall’s unit challenging fake news related to the virus is a reactive measure; preventing misinformation spreading in the first place is the more brutally effective approach. I should note at this juncture that I am not seriously recommending censorship of Twitter. I’m a wishy-squishy bleeding-heart liberal (and a light-touch regulation guy to boot) and, once again, we’re thought-experimenting here. That, of course, is the point: those blue-tick progressives sharing the edited Boris video are almost to a one the same people who have spent the past few years bewailing the failure of social media to get tough on misusers and government to get tough on social media. There was scant concern about the speech rights of those they deemed to be spreading ‘fake news’ (which is reasonable). And the line between ‘fake news’ and ‘saying things progressives don’t want to hear’ was not always obvious (not as reasonable).
There is at least as strong a compelling government interest in halting dangerous falsehoods in the middle of a health crisis as there is in stopping some 'incel' from posting Obama’s ‘real’ birth certificate on Reddit. If you wanted the state to crack down on fake news when you convinced yourself it won Trump the election or Brexit the referendum, you have to apply the same standard to progressives blanketing social media with dishonest videos of Boris Johnson. Maybe government should order Twitter to remove such tweets or suspend users who post them on pain of tighter regulation or even prosecution. It would offend hopeless liberals like me but be entirely in line with what progressives call for when it’s someone else doing the misinforming.