Harmful speech, Covid-19, misinformation, disinformation, malinformation, hate speech
We make two central claims in this essay. First, the themes of malinformation have remained remarkably consistent across pandemics. What has changed is only the manner of their spread through evolving technologies and globalization. Thus, as with pandemic preparedness more generally, our failure to take proactive measures reflects a failure to heed the lessons of the past. Second, we argue that the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to tackle online falsehoods and mitigate their impact in the future.
We proceed in three parts. Part one addresses the harmful speech that inevitably follows in pandemic’s wake. We illustrate this through three historical examples: plague, the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, and AIDS.7 By turning to history, we explore how the spread of false information, while constant in every pandemic, has evolved over time with technological advancement.
In part two, we cast a spotlight on harmful speech during COVID-19. We examine how the disturbing outbreak of erroneous information and hate speech in the present pandemic shares notable common features with prior contagions. What is unprecedented about the current pandemic is only the ease with which malign speech has spread, amplified, and reverberated over the internet.
In part three, we discuss legal and policy measures implemented during COVID-19 to mitigate the growth of, and exposure to, online misinformation and disinformation. We focus on three prominent endeavors: the global movement to regulate internet speech; advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) as an effective content-moderation tool; and investments in closing the digital divide—the gap between those who have reliable internet access and those who do not.8 The latter is typically seen as a way to boost economic and health outcomes, but we make the novel argument that it may also prove an effective measure for suppressing harmful speech.
Kenneth Grad and Amanda Turnbull, "Harmful Speech and the Covid-19 Penumbra" (2023) 19:1 CJLT 1.
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