A COVID-19 testing site in the United States. Credit: US National Guard/Cotton Puryear. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Countries have more than 100 laws on the books to combat misinformation. How well do they work?

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A COVID-19 testing site in the United States. Credit: US National Guard/Cotton Puryear. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is clear: The world isn’t just dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also confronting an “infodemic” of misinformation. While researchers, journalists, and officials have highlighted the lies and inaccuracies they’ve seen about the vaccines and other issues, they’ve paid less attention to the ways in which countries are dealing with their misinformation problems. Since 2019 at least 62 laws have been proposed, amended, or implemented that attempt to tackle misinformation, in other words to further regulate speech.

There has been a huge increase in these sorts of laws since 2015. Given the growth in social media use and the media spotlight on disinformation and misinformation, it’s not surprising that lawmakers, policy analysts (Yadav 2020), and internet platforms (Yadav 2021) are increasingly interested in regulating online discourse. Lawmakers aren’t shifting in this direction just because of COVID-19—mis- and disinformation obviously predate the pandemic—but, during the health crisis, governments have been accelerating their efforts to regulate the internet and speech. Both authoritarian and democratic governments made more legal changes on this front in 2020 than in 2019. And in authoritarian states, pandemic-related misinformation has provided a new justification for repressive policies.

REFERENCES

Access Now. 2020. “Tunisia’s Parliament on COVID-19: an initiative to fight disinformation or an opportunity to violate fundamental rights?” Access Now. April 1. https://www.accessnow.org/tunisias-parliament-on-covid-19-an-initiative-to-fight-disinformation-or-an-opportunity-to-violate-fundamental-rights/

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