Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Is groupthink threatening democracy?
The idea that COVID escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been gaining momentum, but why was it shot down a year ago, and what does this mean for the state of science and the media today?
2. Internet nationalism is on the rise
Authoritarian and democratic governments alike are manipulating their citizens' digital spaces. Is the idea of an open, accessible internet on the retreat?
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Is groupthink threatening democracy?
Did COVID originate from inside these brick walls?
A hypothesis that the most well-respected publications in America once derided as a “fringe theory” (NYT) which “could ultimately be dangerous” (Vox), was definitively a “myth” (AP), and was “repeatedly debunked by experts” (Washington Post) has suddenly become mainstream. And we’re not talking about UFOs.
The COVID lab leak theory––that patient zero was inadvertently infected from a sample held at the Wuhan Institute of Virology––is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
Is there new evidence to support the theory?
A little bit, but not too much has changed since last year. Whatever evidence exists has mostly been around since the theory first emerged, which is cause for concern.
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, some scientists and politicians challenged the Chinese government's official narrative that the virus developed in a wet market in Wuhan, China. They pointed out that the city of Wuhan is hundreds of miles away from the cave systems where novel coronaviruses most commonly develop in nature, but houses the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), China’s highest-risk virology lab. There was never enough evidence to prove a connection, but it’s coincidental enough to at least merit further investigation.
Except neither the esteemed scientists nor the most prominent publications gave it any real consideration. In February of 2020, 27 prominent scientists signed onto a letter in The Lancet to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” They then cited some seemingly important studies, and said “conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice.” Once suggesting a lab leak origin to the virus became conspiratorial and prejudiced fearmongering, debate on the matter all but died.
Meanwhile, the lab leak theory remained plausible while the original explanation for the virus lost traction. In the time since we learned what a pangolin is, the Chinese government disavowed its preferred theory that the virus emerged in a Wuhan wet market and then insisted it was imported into China on frozen food. Come January of 2021, NYMag ran a controversial cover story on the theory, and Beijing felt compelled to respond. Finally, the government suggested that COVID did in fact escape from a lab. Except the government official said it was Fort Detrick in Maryland, amounting to a diplomatic “no, u.”
It’s normal for theories to come and go as new evidence arises. That’s how the scientific method works. But even though there is some new circumstantial evidence in favor of a possible lab leak (three researchers at the WIV were hospitalized in November of 2019 for COVID-like symptoms), nothing has come out which undermines the basis on which the theory was rejected a year ago. In other words, if it’s no longer conspiratorial to explore a possible lab origin for the virus now, it never should have been.
Why bury the lab leak theory?
It seems that the biggest trouble with the lab leak theory wasn’t its substance, but its supporters. Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was an early advocate for an inquiry, but was ridiculed by the media and prominent scientists on Twitter for backing a “conspiracy” theory.
President Donald Trump then offered his support for a lab leak, but muddled the conversation by suggesting it was a deliberately-released bioweapon. Calling it the “worst attack we’ve ever had on our country,” Trump probably threw the lab leak hypothesis out of the realm of possibility for many scientists and politicos. With a history of promoting wild conspiracy theories, the former president is hardly a reliable source. But it’s troubling that scientists’ and journalists’ distaste for the messenger caused them to scrap a valid hypothesis.
Is politics inescapable?
Writing about the U.K. in 1948, George Orwell warned about the creeping influence of politics on literature. With the Iron Curtain falling across Europe and the Second World War barely in the rearview mirror, Orwell acknowledged that “the invasion of politics” into literature “was bound to happen.”
The problem, though, was that with the injection of politics came a loss of objectivity. In Orwell’s words, “to accept political responsibility now means yielding oneself over to orthodoxies and ‘party lines’, with all the timidity and dishonesty that that implies.” Loyalty mattered more than integrity; honesty lost out.
When it prematurely discredited the lab leak theory, the American scientific community entered its own 1948 moment. Whether compelled by political passions or reasonably doubtful of Trump’s bombastic claims, the scientific community rejected the lab leak hypothesis without actually having considered its merits.
Herein lies a threat to our marketplace of ideas. In a truly open marketplace, you are free to think for yourself, and follow inquiries wherever they lead. You can be a skeptic or a contrarian. But this freedom is curtailed when offering an opinion or asking a question involves the possibility that you could be socially ostracized or worse––accused of racism.
In order to progress and pursue truth, we need to be free to explore all valid paths of inquiry, even the unpopular. From the Earth revolving around the sun to democracy itself, many of our greatest innovations were once implausible or deeply unpopular ideas. This doesn’t mean that we should be equally accepting of all ideas––only that we should have a very high bar for rejecting certain paths of inquiry and distrusting those who pursue them.
Internet nationalism is on the rise
Is the Great Firewall expanding?
Credit: Getty Images, WSJ
When the internet was young, many people believed that it represented the beginning of censorship’s demise and the rise of unrestricted information exchange. Bill Clinton quipped that China’s efforts to curtail internet freedom were “like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”
It seems that the Jell-O has finally stuck.
The internet is splintering, with authoritarian and democratic governments alike manipulating their citizens' digital spaces (albeit on very different scales). Is the idea of an open, shared internet in retreat?
What’s happening to the internet?
In short, countries have found ways to restrict their citizens’ rights online. Just last week, the Kremlin placed content restrictions on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. In India, Narendra Modi’s government passed a law allowing the imprisonment of social media executives for up to seven years if they refuse to remove content at the government’s request. And now Mauritius is considering an expansive law which would funnel all internet traffic through proxy servers, allowing the government to monitor everything its citizens do online.
Around the world, restrictions against the open internet are on the rise. According to Axios reporting on a press release from Facebook, service on its platform was disrupted 84 times in 19 countries in the second half of 2020, about 50% more than in the first half of the year.
To what extent are major internet restrictions a new thing?
This practice isn’t new, but it’s been getting worse.
China has been actively regulating the internet since 1997. Over the following two and a half decades, the ever-growing Great Firewall developed into an alternative internet that restricts foreign platforms like Google, tightly censors speech, and enables mass surveillance on a scale unlike anything before. And far from forcing authoritarian regimes like China to open, the internet instead appears to actually enable them to export these practices to other countries.
Following China’s lead, states such as Iran, Russia, Belarus, and Egypt have stepped up their regulation of online speech and activity, especially surrounding protests and elections. In 2019, there were 65 internet shutdowns related to protests alone.
Are authoritarians weaponizing the internet against democracy?
Authoritarians can only impose online restrictions within their borders, but they’re influencing the internet everywhere.
Over the last decade, the Kremlin has taken the lead in orchestrating complex disinformation campaigns. During the 2016 U.S. election cycle, an estimated 126 million people saw at least one post on Facebook that was created by Russian trolls, but Americans aren’t the only victims. Kremlin-backed troll farms have been traced to voter fraud theories during the Scottish and Catalan independence referendums; they’ve posed as Germans to criticize Angela Merkel’s immigration policies, and they’ve raised doubts about the legitimacy of elections in Italy and the Netherlands, to name a few.
Russia is the most prolific producer of disinformation, but other countries are learning quickly. According to a 2019 report, at least 70 countries have orchestrated disinformation campaigns, with 56 of those spreading state propaganda on Facebook. This past year, China and Iran have used social media campaigns to target democracies, suggesting that the U.S engineered the novel coronavirus behind the pandemic and that democratic governments are helpless to control it.
Can Western governments fight back against misinformation while protecting freedom of speech online?
European governments are leading the world in effective internet regulation to combat disinformation and protect their citizens’ data. The E.U.’s flagship data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), are liberal democracies’ most ambitious attempt at stopping the dangerous proliferation of private information.
At the same time, there are some troubling signs that they could be going too far. As European governments regulate the internet for their citizens' protection, they also become monitors of acceptable speech, censors of objectionable content, and curators of online entertainment. Four years ago in Germany for example, Merkel’s government passed a sweeping law to police social media which was lambasted by Human Rights Watch and a United Nations working group for being overly restrictive of free speech.
Regulation is undoubtedly necessary, but free nations must be careful that in responding to the threats of misinformation emanating from authoritarian regimes, we don’t inadvertently go too far in limiting individual freedoms. A safer internet doesn’t have to become a more limited, fragmented one.
If we can take this moment as an opportunity to develop transnational standards for resisting disinformation while also enshrining freedom of speech in online platforms, we can preserve the dream of a cosmopolitan, safe, and open internet for future generations. The internet is at a crossroads, and it’s vital that all segments of society from the government to the private sector come together and proactively develop consistent online policies in defense of that dream.