Online disinformation has been on the rise in recent years. A digital outbreak of disinformation has spread around the COVID-19 pandemic, often referred to as an “infodemic.” Since January 2020, digital media have been both the culprits of and antidotes to misinformation. The first months of the pandemic have shown that countering disinformation online has become as important as ensuring much needed medical equipment and supplies for health workers. For many governments around the world, priority COVID-19 actions included measures such as (a) providing guidance to social media companies on taking down contentious pandemic content (e.g., India); (b) establishing special units to combat disinformation (e.g., EU, UK); and (c) criminalizing malicious coronavirus falsehood, including in relation to public health measures. This article explores the short and potential long-term effects of newly passed legislation in various countries directly targeting COVID-19 disinformation on the media, whether traditional or digital. The early actions enacted under the state-of-emergency carve new directions in negotiating the delicate balance between freedom of expression and online censorship, in particular by imposing limitations on access to information and inducing self-restraint in reporting. Based on comparative legal analysis, this article provides a timely discussion of intended and unintended consequences of such legal responses to the “infodemic,” reflecting on a basic set of safeguards needed to preserve trust in online information.
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