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.