In the face of a crisis politicians do have strong incentives to conceal, lie and even spread disinformation. There seems to be a natural impulse to do so, to try to avoid blame or perhaps out of a form of wishful thinking that reality will somehow conform to the deception. A politician might even have seemingly good reasons to conceal and deceive, such as avoiding seeming weak to other nations or to try to avoid panicking the population. No matter the motivation, concealing the facts will only make the problem worse, while disinformation will make it even worse than silence would.
One lesson that should have been learned from the 1918 influenza pandemic is that honesty and accurate information are critical to fighting a pandemic. The threat of the flu was initially downplayed, allowing it to spread and officials failed to inform the public of the true danger. One example of this is the infamous Philadelphia parade which allowed the flu to spread like wildfire. This resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people and over 200,000 were infected. While this disaster should have provided a clear lesson to others, the denial, downplaying and deceit continued in the United States. The inaction extended all the way to the top, with President Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat) remaining silent. While there is no way to calculate exactly how many people would have not died if a policy of providing accurate information had been adopted, it is reasonable to infer that many lives could have been saved. Given this clear historical lesson, one would have thought that we would have been ready to address COVID-19 with honest, accurate information. But this was not the case. As an American, I will focus on my government, though examining other nations would also be useful.
When COVID-19 was first identified in January, former Trump officials (Bossert and Gottlieb) started sounding a warning about the virus, drawing the obvious and tragic lessons from the 1918 pandemic. The initial response from Fox News was to cast the virus as a hoax intended to harm Trump. In the previous version of this essay I asserted that both Trump and Fox put forth the claim that the virus was a hoax. According to Snopes, Trump did not directly claim the virus was a hoax but instead accused the Democrats of creating a new hoax—the target of the alleged hoax being his inept and dangerous handling of the virus. This evolved into downplaying the severity of the threat, with Trump making dangerously false claims about the spread of the virus and other critical matters. While the White House and Fox news eventually seemed to take the threat seriously, dangerous disinformation was still being spread. One example of utter moral irresponsibility is the claim that test kits were readily available so that the federal government would be able to provide them to the states. This was, of course, not true and the lie costs the states precious time they could have used to create and distribute their own test kits. To use an analogy, it is as if your apartment building were on fire and the fire department said that they were just about there and ready to fight the fire with their great new firetrucks. But they were lying—they were not on their way and only had a few hand pumped hoses.
Because of the downplaying and deceit, there will be many deaths that could have been prevented by the truth. If Trump and Fox News had told the truth from day one, people would certainly still have gotten sick—but we would have been far better prepared with test kits and with defensive measures that could have greatly mitigated the virus. Instead, Trump and Fox News (and others) have aided and abetted the enemy with their disinformation and some of the deaths that have occurred and will occur are partially their fault. While damage to the economy would have still occurred under an honest administration, it would have been less since the virus’s impact would have been lessened.
The lesson from COVID-19 is essentially a repeat course of the lessons from the 1918 pandemic: those in power need to provide honest and accurate information to the public in the face of public health threats. Such honesty can impose a cost on a politician, especially if they are ill equipped to handle and actual crisis. But the cost of silence and disinformation is always vastly higher on the public. And a politician can, from a selfish viewpoint, stand to benefit from being honest—if they are able to handle the crisis competently, then they can be rewarded by the public. However, the main concern of a leader should always be the good of those they lead, not their own perceived private good—especially not at the expense of the people.
It could be objected that there have been cases in which silence and disinformation were beneficial—that is, the leaders’ concealment or lying yielded a better outcome than the truth. While this might have some merit, this does not seem to be the case—as the 1918 pandemic shows. To claim that there might be some secret cases in which silence or deception were the best choices would be to use a variant of the appeal to ignorance fallacy—asserting that silence or deceit might be good because there might be unknown cases in which they worked is obviously terrible logic. While the above focuses on politicians and leaders, it is also worth considering the threat of disinformation from members of the public.
As would be expected in a time of crisis, citizens also spread misinformation. In some cases, this is the result of ignorance—people might be acting from benevolent motives, but they are doing harm because they are spreading untrue claims. For example, a person might believe that bleach drinking can cure COVID-19 and they share this because they care. While such benevolent motives cannot be faulted, people have an obligation to critically assess claims about a crisis before they share them with others. A quick test of a claim is to check it against one’s own observations, against one’s background information and against established credible claims. Using the bleach example, bleach bottles figure prominent warnings about the dangers of bleach (observation) and most people should have in their background information that bleach is a poison. If a claim matches up with all three, then it is reasonable to accept it as likely be true. If it does not, then it can often be reasonable to doubt the claim or at least suspend judgment. People also need to critically assess the sources of claims about a crisis. If no source is provided, then one must go with the methods of testing a claim. If a source is provided, the source must be confirmed (for example, is it really from the CDC?) and assessed. The credibility of source depends primarily on the knowledge of the source (how likely they are to be right) and their lack of bias (a biased source is less credible, since they have a reason to lie). In general, knowledgeable and unbiased sources are good sources; biased or ignorant sources are not. When in doubt it is wisest to suspend judgment.
There are also those who spread misinformation knowingly. This might be to make money, such as Televangelist Jim Bakker’s efforts to sell a fake corona virus cure or for political advantages, such as Russia’s efforts to worsen the pandemic by spreading disinformation in the West. There are, as always, the trolls who will spread disinformation because they find it amusing or because they want to hurt people. There seems to be no reasonable way to argue that it is morally acceptable for people to lie in health crisis to make money or from a free-speech-for-trolls viewpoint. But perhaps a case can be made justifying nations weaponizing misinformation. After all, if the use of war and means short of war that involve hurting and killing people are morally acceptable, then hurting people through misinformation would also seem acceptable. That is, if we accept killing people with bullets and bombs, then it is hard to balk at killing with lies.
One possible response is to argue that a pandemic is a war with two sides: humans and the pathogen. As such, when a country uses disinformation in a pandemic, they are aiding the enemy of all humanity—that is, they are committing treason in a time of war. A less dramatic and more pragmatic response is to point out that misinformation, like a virus, tends to spread—so a country that weaponizes misinformation runs the risk of it infecting their population. Social media is, of course, the vessel of choice for distributing most disinformation and misinformation.
While there can be sensible debate about what sort of political speech social media should restrict, if any, there seems to be no good arguments that social media companies should allow and enable the spread of misinformation and disinformation about a pandemic. Returning to the virus analogy, this would be like Uber having a policy of allowing drivers to knowingly transports people infected with COVID-19 around to interact with health people just because they can make some money doing so. There is also the war analogy—if social media does not fight misinformation and disinformation in a pandemic, they are aiding and abetting the enemy in a time of war.
In closing, the lessons here are clear: leaders need to immediately provide accurate information about pandemics, citizens need to be critical in their acceptance of information, and intentional spreading of disinformation should be regarded as moral crime against humanity in a time of war.