Online misinformation may be new, but the way information spreads across online networks is remarkably similar to the way disease diffuses across people-to-people networks.
Viral diseases and mis- and disinformation are not classical environmental issues, but like pollution they are harmful invasions of our common space, bodies and minds. These harms are also interlinked in many ways. For example, increased air pollution reduces lung functioning, increasing the likelihood that the coronavirus will be deadly. Rightwing myths that government employees loyal to their statutory mission are part of a Deep State subverting our freedoms, or that environmental rules are bad for business, have fostered support for the Administration’s dismantling of agency programs, including the pandemic prevention team Obama created, and the EPA’s efforts to clean up our air, water and land. We need intelligent governance to protect us and that requires access by the public to accurate information so that the public can have real representative government that works for the common good – the original intent of the founders of our republic.
Internet companies have made some moves to institute controls on information damaging to public health, for example deleting false statements from Brazil’s president. But these controls are being developed by private companies behind closed doors and will be mitigated by their commercial interest. At the 13th Internet Governance Forum attendees agreed that “self-regulation by the Internet platform cannot be a solution because it is dependent upon the platform’s business purpose (namely profit). On the other hand, stronger regulation by governments often is, in practice, a means to repress freedom of expression and prevent political opponents from critiquing the establishment under the pretext of fighting fake news.“ But a functioning democracy could craft controls that accomplish needed limits while respecting free speech rights. More public attention to this issue could prompt this.