Fighting Europe's Covid-19 Infodemic: Freedom of Expression Concerns

By Eugenia Lostri and Maggie Tennis
The ‘infodemic’ that has accompanied the coronavirus crisis resurfaces the question: how should initiatives to counter the spread of false information balance the right to free speech? The European Commission, which has been working on the issue of disinformation for several years, has recently put forward a communication on dealing with Covid-19 disinformation. And while the document acknowledges the importance of ensuring no harm comes to the health of their citizens due to false information about the virus while protecting freedom of speech, it seemingly has not reached a solution for accommodating both. Existing policies focus on assuring the protection of freedom of speech when disinformation is put forward by foreign actors. But when it comes to countering misinformation, the policy is less clear. Focusing on the public health effects of misleading content, rather than the sharer’s intent, could be a more efficient framework for fighting the spread of false information.  That will present different challenges for protecting freedom of expression.

In 2018 the Europeans issued the Code of Practice on Disinformation and roadmaps for implementation, the Action Plan Against Disinformation and the Communication on Tackling online disinformation: a European approach. The documents were designed to challenge Russian influence campaigns prior to the 2019 elections. In them, the Europeans repeatedly clarify that all initiatives will be implemented with full respect to the “core value” of free expression.
In response to the Covid-19 crisis, the European framework on disinformation has shifted its focus to the health concerns associated with coronavirus disinformation. The most recent Joint Communication on “Tackling Covid-19 disinformation – Getting the Facts Right” defines disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm.” In this statement, “public harm” encompasses threats to democratic processes, citizens’ health, environment or security—allowing for its general application to the new crisis. And in line with the existing policies, the Joint Communication addresses concerns regarding the effect of disinformation on freedom of expression and plural media.

The Communication finds that “some measures designed to tackle the ‘infodemic’ can be used as a pretext to undermine fundamental rights.” In fact, EU High Representative Josep Borrell warned in early May that “the COVID-19 pandemic is being used to limit freedom of the press.” Already, EU and non-EU countries have expanded policies that block virus-related false information. For example, Bulgaria now issues fines and prison sentences for spreading “fake news” about the virus and Hungary imposed a five-year prison sentence on anyone guilty of spreading health misinformation.  Serbia, an EU candidate country, imposed restrictions on certain types of information about coronavirus, including opinion articles.

Some states that invoked emergency powers to deal with the pandemic are using that new authority to control the information space. For example, Romania’s president signed an emergency decree that allows the state to shut down websites that spread “fake news.” Moldova passed an emergency decree blocking “personal opinions” on the pandemic. Outside of Europe, South Africa passed a law that criminalizes spreading disinformation about coronavirus and Jordan announced that its state of emergency enables the prime minister to “monitor the content of newspapers, ads, and any other method of communication…and to censor and shut down any outlet without justification.” In the Philippines, the pandemic-related emergency order criminalizes “false information.” Other countries that now criminalize or issue fines for spreading fake news include Algeria, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

In Europe, the Commission has yet to determine how to counter false health content about the novel coronavirus without condoning punitive measures that stifle free speech. Nor does it consider how to prevent states from violating principles of free expression as they combat coronavirus misinformation domestically. The Commission wants to avoid abusing emergency legislation to restrict free expression related to coronavirus. But even relatively tame measures, such as calling for social media platforms to play a stronger role in blocking the spread of false information risks violating this core principle by removing or demoting legitimate speech. The policies put forward have yet to reconcile this issue.

Furthermore, the Joint Communication makes it a point to focus on preventing disinformation exclusively, but misses the opportunity to explore the challenges that misinformation poses. Although it highlights instances of foreign action—the Communication mentions China and Russia, and the President of the European Commission has singled out Chinese operations related to Covid—the framework does not consider how addressing foreign information operations might look different from addressing domestic instances of false information. Information about the coronavirus pandemic does not need to be intentionally misleading to cause harm. And while misinformation is expected in an uncertain environment, reducing overall harm requires dealing with it as well as malicious disinformation. If the purpose of more targeted powers against Covid-19 false information is to prevent harm to citizens, does the underlying belief or intention behind the inaccuracy actually matter?

In providing guidance on protecting free speech while preventing the spread of coronavirus misinformation, there is a need to distinguish between disinformation and misinformation, because the two manifestations of false content are not the same. While the former may require focusing on inauthentic behavior, the latter requires greater attention to pushing accurate and trustworthy information to people’s fingertips, whether through apps, search engine optimization rankings, or pinned posts on social media, and flagging bad information with notices that link to corrections. Regardless of how the Commission chooses to tackle the issue, the first step is discussing and drafting guidelines that focus on the different forms of false information. And when it comes to ensuring freedom of expression, this challenge will likely be harder for effectively countering false information, but may be a more fundamental task.


Eugenia Lostri is a research associate with the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
Maggie Tennis is a graduate intern with the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Technology Policy Blog is produced by the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Eugenia Lostri

Eugenia Lostri

Former Associate Fellow, Strategic Technologies Program