Coronavirus Crisis Pushes States to Quarantine Online Information

Epidemics raise worrying questions about how to limit state power.

A woman wears a face mask as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus disease
A woman wears a face mask as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus disease as she travels on a ferry from Kowloon to the island side of Hong Kong on Feb. 14. Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

Viruses are apolitical objects, infecting bodies without regard for their hosts’ underlying ideologies and belief systems. Epidemics, on the other hand, are a different story. The way that we respond to epidemics creates large, political questions about control: how to control the spread of a disease, of a people, of information.

And those questions create a unique, if temporary, type of disaster diplomacy—one where states, using extraordinary powers, exert social control over their people toward achieving a common goal: containment and cure. Disaster diplomacy can reveal huge opportunities and commonalities in the shared response to disease, but it can also reveal fissures—and those fissures in state power shape not only the coverage of the current coronavirus outbreak spreading outward from China but also the internet and state emergency powers themselves. We call that dynamic “digitalpolitik”—the way that states exert realpolitik to expand and adapt sovereign control via technological means.

Information and misinformation cross platform and national boundaries, all the while revealing the inherently political nature of a globalized internet. From WhatsApp to Weibo, from YouTube to Yandex, the new outbreak has sparked a wave of searches, posts, shares, and comments, distributing everything from uncertain or unverified findings to conspiracy theories. Memes gather in multiple languages, spreading both humor to help relieve the tension around this disease and misinformation that exacerbates it. The fear is global, but the panics and rumors are often local, from anti-Chinese rumors in Indonesia to the runs on stores in Hong Kong. And the varied responses of governments and media to the crisis have mirrored the strategies of online persuasion and control that mark wildly different approaches to the internet as a whole.

The passage of information during an epidemic is more sensitive and important than the usual news cycle, often because the political impact is so much higher, and because normal due process protections can be almost entirely absent. In most countries, when a government declares a state of emergency, it does two primary things: It grants itself exceptional powers to do things like seize and use property, limit freedom of mobility, and take action without civil liberties limits, and it sets a regular review process, either by law enforcement or the legislature, to ensure those powers are necessary and finite. The abuse of rights under the cover of security—whether against terrorism or against disease—can become normalized.

This epidemic comes at a time when there are powerful cultural clashes around political speech, surveillance powers, telecommunications infrastructure, and the evolution of digital surveillance. Perhaps the most public version of the geopolitical dimension of information flows is the selective application of travel bans—despite significant expert concern that they’re ineffective—limiting fundamental freedoms.

Similarly, epidemics have large impacts on national economies. The coronavirus has already taken a toll on the yuan, trimmed China’s annual GDP projections, and led to a significant amount of supply chain refactoring. And, of course, the panic of epidemic often gives way to its own markets—reorganizing investment, catalyzing an influx of international actors, and directing institutional focus to response—often at the cost of other vital needs.

Last year, we wrote about digitalpolitik, the idea that governments, in particular, are using their influence to shape the ways that digital companies, markets, and rights connect us online. In the context of the coronavirus, the most immediate and talked-about example of digitalpolitik started at the beginning, when Wuhan police began arresting people for discussing the novel coronavirus online. This form of censorship of speech is a familiar one by now in China—online censorship accompanied by arrests of key nodes in the distribution of what the government defines as a “rumor.” It’s unclear whether the authorities hoped to control rumor or the system was just automatically reacting against negative information, without thought or planning.

Unlike many of the points of origin of recent outbreaks, China’s government wields significant control over its domestic internet. Indeed, a significant amount of the international reporting on the coronavirus has focused on the role, capacity, and control of the Chinese state in shaping digital content about the virus. This reporting often misses the extraordinarily complex, multilayered politics playing out in China, but it reveals something else important: There’s very little international agreement on the appropriate checks of state power, especially in the context of health emergencies and the use of digital technologies.

There are wildly different ideas about the appropriate interaction between the state and the internet. The dynamics of digitalpolitik that we raised last year are playing out in real time across the headlines and trending posts, not just in terms of what’s happening but also in the ways in which it’s being used by various states and platforms. Domestically, both the Chinese attempts to control initial reports of the outbreak and the quarantine itself were examples of what we have described in earlier work as “Nationalist (Consolidator)” tactics, i.e., using control over the internet to extend domestic power.

By contrast, the Chinese government’s inconsistent approach to publicly reporting cases and coordinating with international authorities, as well as its use of platforms to control information, are attempts to control the international community’s perception of what’s happening in Hubei, which is what we describe as “Nationalist (Projector).” And China’s not the only information actor using the crisis to score political points—Russian state television recently presented a conspiracy theory that attributed the coronavirus to U.S. President Donald Trump, suggesting a connection through his distribution of Miss Universe crowns. That’s an example of what we have described as “Digital Influencer” behavior from Russia, using its media and online misinformation resources to sow conflict between powerful rivals. And, of course, the companies that own these online platforms are also playing a role—from taking extraordinary content moderation steps to forming direct partnerships with the World Health Organization to, in some cases, enforcing state censorship mandates.

How should private firms handle these state demands? Today, there aren’t any internationally agreed-upon public health communication guidelines, and certainly not on the internet. That puts platforms in the difficult position of having to balance competing political mandates from different countries, while ensuring that they don’t enable their platforms or users to exacerbate the problem—which isn’t an exact science in the best of cases. While platforms like Google are commendably working with the WHO to coordinate responses, setting up an SOS alert, for instance, on searches of “coronavirus,” these alerts are uneven across languages, infrastructure, and borders. The WHO holds no institutional authority over platforms; consequently, private platforms must make decisions that affect public health.

One source of criticism in the way that the world manages epidemics is that the limits imposed in response to the pathogen are often prioritized over practical approaches to healing people. For example, epidemic responses like travel bans and quarantines aren’t designed to heal the sick—they’re designed to limit the transmission of the disease by keeping people apart. Ultimately, though, people resist those social controls—and often long before any cure is in sight. In Wuhan, hundreds of thousands of people rushed to leave the city when the travel ban was announced, but before it was imposed. Elsewhere in China, villages have been imposing their own arbitrary quarantines on people from Hubei, while migrants attempt to keep finding work or return to their families.

This practice sometimes spills over into the digital world: Uber Mexico, for instance, recently banned over 200 passengers from using its service when it analyzed their ride-hailing data to see who had come in contact with one patient. This form of social control, as some public health experts argued, may have actually increased the risk of spread by forcing people banned from Uber’s service to take public transit, where they would expose far more people to the highly contagious virus.

In many ways, coverage of the coronavirus makes these same mistakes by trying to treat misinformation as a problem of platform and content control, instead of pressuring institutions to create credible sources of information. It is, of course, not a binary—but it is striking—and the behavior of tech companies is also revealing their political contexts. The Chinese government is viewed as exerting its control over domestically owned platforms, like WeChat and Weibo, to not only limit the flow of information about coronavirus, but also punish the people trying to share information. By contrast, a number of American platforms are publicizing their efforts to control misinformation and coordinate with international agencies—while also administering their own versions of travel bans and isolationism. Despite all of this, there are ongoing concerns and doubts about the veracity of the current estimates of those infected and dead. It’s an appropriate, if damning, commentary on the state of international diplomatic relations that it’s easier to close borders than to negotiate information-sharing.

Ultimately, epidemics represent a critical balance of state-implemented social control and problem-solving—we expedite vaccine trials and treatment experimentation protocols alongside quarantines. As the internet becomes increasingly pervasive and continues to be an implement of state and social control, different platforms’ approaches to managing misinformation will be equally state-influenced. That’s especially dangerous in the circumstances of using technology for social control, as once governments and platforms develop digital emergency powers, they tend to reuse them in other contexts. If the normal state of affairs in internet governance gives way to raw digitalpolitik, then epidemics are stress tests for the public, sovereign, and institutional controls over the exertion of emergency powers by governments and platforms.

One of the defining characteristics of digitalpolitik is that, amid conflict, necessity drives codependence. If there’s an upside to the exigency created by epidemic response, it’s that public health systems acknowledge and have operational mechanisms to cope with international codependence. That’s important because, at this stage, there seems very little likelihood that any one state will manage to contain the coronavirus by itself. The same could be said of the way states are seeking to shape, control, or otherwise alter the narrative around coronavirus.

When the WHO declared the novel coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern late last month, it mobilized, among other things, a number of international response efforts and authorities—many without strong institutional or democratic checks. And just as these authorities seek to control borders, people, and property, they are also making decisions about how to use their powers to compel access to data, control digital platforms, and shape the narrative around state power.

As digital technologies blur the boundaries around jurisdiction, influence, and state power, we’ll likely see governments and platforms develop a host of surveillance tools, legal authorities, and public-private partnerships to inform the response. Already, the U.S. and Australian governments are using mobile phones to track people suspected of infection, using privately collected data to surveil their own citizens. These things are now commonplace during response efforts—and the ways they shape information ecosystems and disaster response are having increasingly destabilizing effects on humanitarian response. The objects that governments set up during disaster often get compromised and redeployed for political means—and here, whether led by China’s example or supplied by their companies, the surveillance practices, legal justifications, and emergency powers that governments deploy now are likely to meaningfully shape the debate on international data and digital governance.

The internet, of course, has also enabled a remarkably quick response to the virus, allowing researchers and responders to share information as much as possible. The disease was sequenced in a record three days, and for-profit publishers have opened access to research related to the diseases. And while those signs of progress are significant, they also come amid news that Li Wenliang, a doctor who tried to raise the alarm about the coronavirus, died of it.

It’s hard to predict whether the digitalpolitik of a global epidemic will help the world’s digital superpowers to realize their interdependence or deepen the political, economic, and sovereign conflicts digitization fuels. What seems more obvious is that the information ecosystem is, in and of itself, suffering its own public health emergency of international concern.

Sean Martin McDonald builds governance systems for technology and technology systems for governance. Sean is the CEO of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning social enterprise, and the co-founder of Digital Public, which uses data trusts to help govern digital assets. Sean is a Fellow at Duke's Center for Law & Technology, and a researcher whose work has been published by the Review of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Center for Internet and Society, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Cornell’s Legal Informatics Institute, IRIN, and Innovations Journal. He is a lawyer, barred in New York, with a JD/MA from American University and specializations in international law and alternative dispute resolution.

An Xiao Mina is a research affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and was a 2016 Knight Visiting Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Twitter: @anxiaostudio

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