There’s still a debate about the origins of COVID-19. Perhaps it leaked from a Chinese government lab. Perhaps it didn’t. One thing though is increasingly certain: the virus is turning us into China. In response to a health problem, western democracies — and even America — have abandoned the messy idea of liberty and turned towards Chinese-style authoritarianism. It’s as if Beijing sneezed and we all caught authoritarianism. We’ve been Sinofied.
If you think I exaggerate, listen to what White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced yesterday. It’s worth quoting at length:
‘We’ve increased disinformation research and tracking. Within the Surgeon General’s Office, we’re flagging posts for Facebook that spread disinformation. It’s important to take faster action against harmful posts. As you all know, information travels quite quickly on social media platforms. Sometimes it’s not accurate, and Facebook needs to move more quickly to remove harmful violative posts. Posts that would be within their policies for removal often remain up for days. That’s too long. The information spreads too quickly.
‘Finally, we have proposed they promote quality information sources in their feed algorithm… Facebook has repeatedly shown that they have the leverage to promote quality information. We’ve seen them effectively do this in their algorithm over low-quality information, and they’ve chosen not to use it in this case.’
It’s intriguing that Psaki is not worried about sounding too much like the official mouthpiece of a dictatorship. She’s clearly more anxious about the reverse: she doesn’t want to come across as insufficiently censorial. As far as the White House is concerned, the really damaging story would be that the President is not doing enough to control harmful speech on social media and, as Psaki puts it, ‘boost trusted content’. And that’s right in a way, since the White House press corps is bizarrely anti-free speech. The only time some newshounds really challenge public health officials or Facebook executives or even other journalists is over their failure to stop wrongthink. Look at the New York Times’s recent campaign against Fox News for its alleged role in increasing ‘vaccine hesitancy’.
This is not meant to happen in a free society. The fourth estate is meant to be the guardian of democracy, not the enforcer of official think. It emerged this week that the Biden administration is so desperate to stop health ‘misinformation’ that it is trying to remove content from supposedly private SMS text message services. This is precisely what China does with WeChat.
We hear a lot of talk about how the pandemic has accelerated certain trends. One trend was the tendency of government officials and corporate media to view free speech as ‘problematic’, and a certain jealousy among such people towards China’s authoritarian regime and its ability to stifle dissent. Figures like Jen Psaki used to be discreet about such thoughts: until very recently, it was unacceptable to advocate state censorship. Now, thanks to COVID-19, it’s almost a boast.