COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the authoritarian use of digital technologies. Digital surveillance has radically increased, with governments tightly tracking the movements and associations of their citizens. Physical spaces have become digitally gated – from cafes and libraries to even whole countries – with ordinary citizens recruited to ensure compliance. And unsecured databases have become bloated with more and more personal health information.
To manage the pandemic, governments and other vested stakeholders have unleashed their own pandemic of control. Government officials, medical experts, mainstream media, and Big Tech have pushed the narrative that COVID-19 could be tightly controlled, and that citizens everywhere had a responsibility to abide, with no questions asked, to achieve that aim.
The “approved” pandemic response was defended at all costs. News media ridiculed alternative viewpoints as fake news and misinformation, and social media platforms took down contradictory views from their feeds, silencing voices that questioned vaccine passports, lockdowns, and other controls.
And while restrictions are being eased in some countries, in many other countries they are not. In addition, much of the infrastructure remains at the ready, and the population itself is now well-groomed for the next set of demands.
The pandemic is not yet over, but a new chapter has begun, one with more space for the digital rights community (which has been unusually quiet throughout) and the wider public to question this pandemic of control.
For example: Governments had released check-in apps that often leaked private information. Fact-checkers and content moderators also reportedly worked with digital platforms to remove information that has since been confirmed or, at the very least worthy, of further investigation. Why was the hashtag #naturalimmunity considered so dangerous that it had to be censored by Instagram? Where were the progressive voices of opposition, the voices that question power?
Most concerning is a general trend among citizens, including progressives, to sacrifice civil liberties and free speech and expression in favour of an authoritarian and top-down, “trust the experts” model. Such has resulted in a lack of accountability for government and corporate leaders, protecting them from scrutiny that might have resulted in better solutions for citizens as a whole.
To generate further public discourse, EngageMedia in partnership with CommonEdge invited writers, researchers, and changemakers to respond to the growing digital authoritarianism – accelerated by COVID-19 – in the Asia-Pacific.
The result is the Pandemic of Control series, a modest contribution toward a more critical citizenry. In this collection, you will find pieces from Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Australia. The authors seek to question the how and the why of their respective countries’ pandemic response, and shed light on more rights-respecting paths moving forward.
We will publish the 10 pieces between April and May 2022. Once completed, they will be compiled into a digital reader for further distribution.
If you are interested to engage further with the authors, EngageMedia, or CommonEdge, you may contact us through our website.
Andrew Lowenthal, Executive Director, EngageMedia
Sam de Silva, CEO, CommonEdge
Read the Pandemic of Control series: