Ministers of Truth

A proposal to criminalize epidemic-related “misinformation” is dangerous

The CBC’s Elizabeth Thompson reports on a rather startling development: the federal government is, apparently, giving serious thought to introducing censorship to discussions of the present plague. More specifically, there is talk of “legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people”, based on a member of the UK House of Commons proposal “for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic”. At least some of the opposition seem keen, Ms. Thompson quoting an NDP Member of Parliament as claiming that “Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public”, and reassuring us, I suppose, that “[t]his is not a question of freedom of speech”.

Actually, it is very much a question of freedom of speech. The Supreme Court invalidated an earlier prohibition on the speading of “false” news in R v Zundel, [1992] 2 SCR 731, and for good reason. Such prohibitions mean that government telling us what we are and what we are not allowed to say. Say something the government deems, in the words of the same honourable gentleman, to “interfere with the efforts of our frontline medical workers”, and suffer punishment. This is a limitation of the freedom of speech on any plausible definition of that concept, and for a Member of Parliament to pretend otherwise is not only an illustration of the politicians’ habitual mendacity but, more specifically, a rather ironic way of getting the public used to the idea of meting out punishment for statements that fail to live up to a standard of truth.

It is far from clear just what these restrictions are meant to accomplish. The CBC report quotes a spokesperson from the Communications Security Establishment, an intelligence agency, as warning about “cybercriminals and fraudsters” who “encourage victims to visit fake web sites, open email attachments and click on text message links” that purport to provide health information. But fraud, for example, is already a crime; there is no need for “extraordinary measures” to prohibit it, or for broadly defined bans on “misinformation”. The report also says that “Health Canada … is sending compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about COVID-19”. It is not quite clear what sort of compliance is in question here, but presumably ― or at least hopefully ― it’s compliance with existing laws, perhaps ones having to do with advertising, or specifically advertising of health products. If so, then why is more legislation necessary?

For his part, the NDP MP tells, darkly, of “troll bot farms, state operators or … conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc”. State actors with troll bot farms at their disposal are unlikely to be deterred by Canadian legislation. At most, then, it will be targeting conspiracy theorists… and giving them more ammunition for believing the government is hiding things. Is there any evidence at all, actually, that “conspiracy theorist cranks” ― especially ones within the reach of Canadian laws, and not the one domiciled at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC ― are having a real effect on Canada’s response to the plague?

And on the other side of the scales, there will be real costs to this proposed legislation. Even if it includes the mens rea requirements of knowledge, wilfulness, and malice ― which, if applied, would result in good faith conspiracist cranks being off the hook ― the law is likely to produce chilling effects. Worse, attempts to enforce it, even if they do not ultimately lead to convictions, will target the politically unpopular, or simply those who happen for one reason or another, to incur the displeasure of police services and prosecutors. As concerning as recent stories of overzealous enforcement of “social distancing” regulations are, the problem is much more longstanding one. Readers may remember me blogging about a makeup artist prosecuted for gory videos involving no actual gore or violence whatsoever and Québec blogger who ― stupidly, to be sure ― mused about a mass shooting in the legislature, about the man who had to go all the way to the Ontario Court of Appeal to quash a municipality’s attempt to prosecute him for a solitary, non-violent protest in the town square, and about the author and publisher of a novel prosecuted for a brief and not remotely titillating description of the rape of a child. And the provisions invoked in these cases are all well-known, and not directed at dealing with a crisis. There is every chance that an emergency anti-disinformation law will result in harsh and arbitrary prosecutions. Even if the accused are ultimately acquitted, they will have undergone considerable stress and expense in the meantime. And, again ― for what?

Even in the short term, the harm of a law against plague-related “disinformation” is likely to outweigh what little good it might do. But the real damage it will do will occur in the medium and long term, as it becomes a template for widespread criminalization of statements deemed to be contrary to this or that state policy. The British MP whose ideas are inspiring the Canadian proposals is apparently drawing his own inspiration from “Germany’s laws governing online hate speech or France’s legislation countering disinformation during election campaigns”. And the report itself notes that the federal

government set up an elaborate system to watch out for attempts to disrupt last year’s federal election through disinformation, including a committee that brought together several departments and a special group chaired by the clerk of the Privy Council to sound the alarm.

Once the plague is over, it will be all too tempting to declare something else the next great public emergency, and to repurpose, instead of abolishing, the censorship mechanisms that allow government to silence those who question or undermine its response ― even if stupidly.

If there is there one thing we’ve learned from events of barely a year ago, it’s that clerks of the Privy Council are not always imbued with a great respect for constitutional propriety, or immune to the temptation to shill for their political masters. I would not trust one of them with the job of a Minister of Truth. Nor would I trust the public health authorities, which themselves at times seem quite confused about what the truth is. Indeed, this confusion only serves to underlie the fact that a government that is entitled to impose the truth on its subjects ― who can no longer be counted as citizens ― is also a government that is empowered to lie to them. No one, after, is allowed, and at length able, to tell the difference. The Canadian government needs to reverse course before it becomes a government of this sort.

The Market for Political Lemons

Andrew Coyne is right that political promise-breaking can be a big problem, but he might still be wrong about it needing to be solved.

In yesterday’s post discussing lies in politics, I referred to Andrew Coyne’s column on politicians breaking campaign promises, saying that promise-breaking “is both different from that of misrepresentations of fact and perhaps more complicated than Mr. Coyne allows.” I would like to elaborate on this.

Mr. Coyne argues that promise-breaking, which he equates with lying, though always a big problem, has been getting even worse in recent years. This is disturbing because, while voters sometimes ― by no means always ― punish the promise-breakers, “[t]he problem … is that nobody is inclined to believe any of them [the politicians, that is] any more, the honest politicians along with the dirty liars.” He adds that

[w]e’ve been burned so often, with such mounting shamelessness … that we now pretty much assume they’re all lying. Certainly there’s no incentive to tell the truth, since there is no way for the honest pol to establish his bona fides. Virtue may be its own reward, but it doesn’t do much for your election chances.

What Mr. Coyne is describing here is politics as what George Akerlof called a “market for lemons” ― and it is real problem. When the sellers offer goods of variable quality (such as well-maintained used cars and “lemons”), while the buyers have difficulty assessing the quality of the goods before they buy, the buyers will adjust the price they are willing to pay to take into account the odds of buying a lemon. This price will, therefore, be lower than what the seller of a high-quality good would expect to fetch, prompting such sellers to exit the market. But as such sellers exit the market, the average quality of the goods on offer goes down, and so does the price buyers are willing to pay, prompting more sellers to exit the market, and so on, in a “death spiral” until the market does not exist. Similarly, if politicians (the sellers in the electoral market) are known to break their promises, and voters have no way of distinguishing the honest ones from the liars, they will, as Mr. Coyne says, “pretty much assume they’re all lying” ― that all the sellers are offering lemons, in other words.

The trouble with this is that the high-quality sellers ― that is to say, the honest politicians ― will exit the market, either by starting to lie or by actually exiting politics (or not entering in the first place). Mr. Coyne, at least in his column, might be worrying more about the former possibility, but the latter is no less disturbing. Unlike in the market for used cars, where sellers are stuck with vehicles they have no need for and are likely to prefer getting a price they consider too low to not getting anything at all, the potential honest politicians have many alternatives to participating in this lemon market. The well-documented decline of interest and active participation in electoral politics over the last forty years or so, and the not-coincidental growth of NGOs and, more recently, social movements no doubt have many causes, but it seems likely that they are, in part, visible manifestations of potential quality sellers exiting the market for political lemons. (So is, perhaps, the growth of public interest litigation.) And while NGOs and social movements can, of course, do a lot of good, we are probably all worse off if honest people refuse to enter electoral politics, where the binding decisions about the use of the state’s coercive power are ultimately taken.

So is Mr. Coyne right that we need mechanisms “with real teeth,” albeit ones “which politicians could opt into, at their discretion,” to ensure that they keep the promises they make? Here are two reasons why I am skeptical.

First, there is the context in which political promises are made. It is one where “the same sorts of conditions and caveats that apply to private contracts,” which Mr. Coyne acknowledges would be necessary for any promise-keeping mechanisms to work, look singularly out of place. One reason for this is simply the need to deliver one’s platform to voters in made-for-television soundbites. Another is that political promises tend to be made for a fairly long time in the future, often the duration of a parliamentary mandate, with all the difficulties of prediction this entails. (Churchill is said to have described a politician’s chief quality as the ability to predict what will happen in a week, in a month, or in a year ― and the ability to explain, afterwards, why it didn’t happen.) Furthermore, the politicians’ ability to keep their promises is subject to a huge number of factors well outside their control. All this suggests that the moral failing of a politician who does not keep a promise will often be lower than that of a person ― including, as I suggested yesterday, that same politician ― who actually lies in the sense of misrepresenting existing facts, and that Mr. Coyne’s equation of the two is somewhat misleading.

Second, there is the issue of bundling. The politicians’ platforms are bundles ― they take positions on a variety of issues, and the voters cannot pick and choose by voting for, say, the Liberal position on the legalization of marijuana, the Conservative position on income-splitting, and the NDP position on the federal minimal wage. However, chances are that most voters agree with at least some elements of the platforms of more than one party or politician, or that on some points they agree with none. They still vote for one politician or party, even though they disagree with parts of its platform, because it is the best ― or the “least worst” ― available bundle, and voting to have some of their preferences implemented is better than not voting at all. But they are probably not distressed ― indeed, they are probably quite happy ― that the person they vote for is able to break those of his or her promises they did not like in the first place. Thus political promise-breaking might not only be “objectively” less blameworthy than lying, but also valuable to at least some voters some of the time.

Now, you (or Mr. Coyne) might say that the proper response to my concerns is for politicians to make fewer promises in the first place, knowing that they might be unable and/or unwilling to keep them ― and to keep those few they do make. That sounds fair enough. But, quite apart from the collective action problems that will stand in the way of such an approach (imagine the reaction to a politician whose response to a journalist’s question about what he or she will do about x is “let’s wait and see, it’s too early too tell”), politicians making fewer promises can produce perverse effects of its own. As Bernard Manin points out in his book on The Principles of Representative Government, politicians are, in fact, making fewer detailed promises than they used to. Instead, they are increasingly competing not on platforms, but on “leadership.” The resulting campaigns are vapid, substance-free affairs. They are not an obvious improvement on the market for political lemons ― if anything, they might create a market for lemons of an even more sour variety.