Freedom of Speech During the Covid-19 Pandemic

The rise of the Internet and the advent of social media has highlighted the need to regulate these open forums whilst balancing the right of freedom of speech. As evidenced by the 2016 US election, although social media can provide an excellent platform for the dissemination of a plurality of ideas and information, it can also be co-opted by bad-actors to spread false information. Disinformation campaigns, such as the one launched by Russia against the 2016 US election, result in vulnerable individuals being ‘tricked’ into believing false information which thereby negatively impacts their individual decision making matrixes. Therefore, following 2016 there has been a push to further regulate social media by specifically targeting disseminators of false information as well as identifying and banning bot accounts. Although these efforts are admirable, they raise questions in regards freedom of speech and who should play the role of arbiter of truth? Should it be the government, the individuals consuming the content or the social medial platforms themselves?

Interestingly, similar issues have emerged in response to the Covid-19 Pandemic. There have been numerous claims of misinformation being spread which is not only dangerous, if its pertaining to medical advice, but also leads to mass hysteria. Therefore, similar to 2016, questions have been raised in regards to how such information should be regulated and who should fulfil that regulatory function. In some counties, such as Cambodia, the Government is stepping in and taking on that role, but this may not be an altruistic act. Cambodian authorities are currently arresting people for expressing concerns about the outbreaks impact in Cambodia, claiming that they are disseminating “fake news.” Interestingly, of the 17 arrests that have taken place since late January of 2020, 4 of those have been members of the opposition party and they remain detained. This is compare to the other 12 who were released upon signing a pledge to cease spreading “fake news.” Thus, the Cambodian Government is appearing to misuse the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to incarcerate political opponents and strangle freedom of speech rather than truly attempting to ensure the validity and truthfulness of information being disseminated via social media and the Internet.

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