News Release

“How Censorship and Lies Made the World Sicker and Less Free”

Joel Simon and Robert Mahoney––longtime defenders of press freedom and former directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists––are the authors of the new book The Infodemic: How Censorship and Lies Made The World Sicker and Less Free. The book investigates how political leaders in various countries, including the U.S., took advantage of the pandemic to censor evolving public health information and flood the public with lies.  

Infodemic is even more pressing in the wake of recent news that Elon Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” has bought Twitter. Musk has a history of censorship of his own critics, including his employees. 

JOEL SIMON, JoelSimonSays@gmail.com, @JoelSimonSays 
    Simon is an author, journalist and press freedom advocate. He is currently a Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute. 

WAFAA EL-SADR, wme1@columbia.edu
    El-Sadr is the founder and director of ICAP at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and an international expert on infectious diseases and public health.

This week, Columbia Global Reports hosted a conversation on censorship and the pandemic with Simon and Mahoney. At the event, Simon and Mahoney discussed their research into how governments in Iran, China, Russia, India, Egypt, and Brazil, and the Trump White House were all part of a “wave of censorship… [in which] governments hijacked the narrative and told their own story.” 

In 2020, said Mahoney, “President Trump’s campaign strategy rested on a strong economy. Trump saw that the actions he would need to take to protect public health would curtail economic activity and undermine his campaign message. He didn’t have the ability to employ top-down censorship, so instead, he used ‘censorship through noise,’ or ‘flooding,’ to confuse the public. He pumped out information that was inaccurate, dismissed and undermined public health experts, and attacked critical journalists who told a story distinct from his own.” 

Simon noted that declines in press freedom, in the health of the information landscape, and in local journalism have been “incredibly destructive in terms of public health response.” Simon said that although the pandemic is a global crisis, “it played out in a very local way; people had local questions that required trusted local sources of information––and that’s often local journalism.”

El-Sadr said: “Infodemic provides a cohesive framework for understanding the ways different countries have responded to Covid-19 pandemic. It also raises a red flag, providing clear warning about how some of the measures put in place in some countries in the name of the Covid-19 response will have durable and detrimental effects on freedom of expression and democratic discourse beyond the pandemic.”