COMMENTARY: A pandemic misinformation law is the wrong response to a real problem

A couple of weeks after reports first emerged that China was likely underreporting its number of COVID-19-related deaths, the Chinese government has finally come out and confirmed what a lot of people already suspected.

On Thursday, China announced that it was revising its death toll from the pandemic, with the official death toll in Wuhan now 50 per cent higher than had previously been announced.

It’s possible — maybe even likely — that the true numbers are higher still, but it certainly proves that people were correct to have suspicions about the original claims from the Chinese government.

You might also recall that when asked about these concerns a couple of weeks ago, Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu was quick to dismiss any suggestion that China was underreporting deaths.

“There is no indication that the data that came out of China in terms of their infection rate and their death rate was falsified in any way,” Hajdu responded when asked about these reports.

She even suggested that the question itself was somehow “feeding into conspiracy theories.”

None of this is to suggest that the health minister was knowingly spreading misinformation, but what it does suggest is that maybe the federal government is not the best arbiter of what is true and what isn’t.

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Earlier this week, Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc told the CBC that the federal government was considering legislation to prohibit the willful spread of harmful COVID-19 misinformation. A British MP has been pushing for a similar law in the UK, and LeBlanc says he’s open to the idea — enough so that he’s even discussed it with Justice Minister David Lametti.

This is not unlike the rules that were brought into place regarding misinformation during federal election campaigns. Changes were made to the Canada Election Act to prohibit the deliberate spread of false statements about candidates or public officials.

Obviously, a pandemic is a much different kind of situation, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that bad information can have public health consequences. And sadly, there’s no shortage of bad information out there.

However, as the above example of Wuhan’s death toll illustrates, the concept of “bad information” can be somewhat subjective. Minister Hajdu probably genuinely believed she was correcting bad information, but as it turned out, she appears to have been the one spreading it in the first place.

Moreover, though, much of what seems like bad information might more accurately be described as bad opinions: “COVID-19 isn’t so bad,” “we don’t need these public health measures,” and so on.

I’m not sure how we police or punish ignorance, as problematic as it may be.

If there are hucksters and charlatans promoting unproven cures and treatments for COVID-19, then we have mechanisms to deal with that. Police certainly have the jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute COVID-19-related scams.  And if there are foreign governments trying to disseminate misinformation to advance their own agendas, then that’s a problem that requires a much different solution.

The federal government — not to mention public health agencies and provincial governments — has considerable advantages when it comes to providing Canadians with information. It certainly has the ability to counter what it perceives to be misinformation, both in terms of its platform and its resources.

For example, the federal government recently announced support for a number of organizations devoted to countering myths and misinformation about this pandemic. That’s a far more sensible approach.

It’s crucial that the government maintain public trust as we work through this pandemic. A heavy-handed approach to dealing with misinformation — one that includes measures that seem more akin to censorship — is not likely to go over well with Canadians. If the end result is higher levels of cynicism among the general public, then such an approach could end up being counterproductive.

The government isn’t wrong to be concerned about bad information, but this is the wrong way to deal with the problem.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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