The Coronavirus Pandemic Poses the Latest Challenge to Free Speech

The Coronavirus Pandemic Poses the Latest Challenge to Free Speech

Open discourse itself is under assault.


One promise of the internet was to lower barriers. It would obliterate the distance limitations of geography and the gatekeeping functions of big media, big business, big academia, and big government. At first, it did this through email, blogs, and message boards. More recently, it has done so through Twitter, YouTube, and podcasts. The spectacular success of these barrier-busting technologies is, however, inviting a furious backlash.

Open discourse itself is under assault.


Consider the case of M. Gabriela M. Gomes, a biomathematician in the United Kingdom. She and her colleagues have been studying the spreading dynamics of COVID-19 and believe they have found encouraging news. In a typical epidemic/vaccination model, people are assumed to be equally susceptible to the infection and equally effective at spreading it to others. The math in such models suggests it takes around 60 percent immunity for an infection to die out.

But SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, does not seem to behave like this canonical academic model suggests. Children, for example, appear to be largely unaffected by it, and they also appear to be poor spreaders. In addition, we are learning that previous exposure to other coronaviruses may produce both antibodies and T-cells that are partially effective (or cross-reactive) against SARS-CoV-2. In other words, our transmission models should not treat everyone in the population equally.

Gomes and her colleagues found that because people likely exhibit highly heterogeneous susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2, the threshold for herd immunity is likely not in the range of the typical 60 percent, but perhaps just 10–20 percent. That would mean this disease, which is in fact highly dangerous for the elderly and those with immune deficiencies and diabetes, may reach its limits of transmission far sooner than many believed. Endless lockdowns and extreme interventions among non-risk groups are even more counterproductive than previously argued.

In May and July, Gomes and her colleagues posted preprints of their findings on the medRxiv website. They concluded that “these findings have profound consequences for the governance of the current pandemic given that some populations may be close to achieving herd immunity despite being under more or less strict social distancing measures.”

Gomes is not alone. Michael Levitt, a biophysicist and Nobel laureate in chemistry, uses a very different model, but basically agrees with the conclusion. Nic Lewis previously argued herd immunity for COVID-19 was in the 20–25 percent range.

And yet these important findings are being suppressed. As Gomes notes,

[S]cience journals refuse to publish it. Our most recent preprint estimating relatively low herd immunity thresholds has just been rejected. The top reason was: “Given the implications for public health, it is appropriate to hold claims around the herd immunity threshold to a very high evidence bar, as these would be interpreted to justify relaxation of interventions, potentially placing people at risk.”

Maximum interventions, such as lockdowns and school closures, are thus deemed to be in the public interest. Any science or data which tend to undermine those policies is deemed out of bounds. Only viewpoints that reinforce the policy are allowed. In technical jargon, this is known as “backward.”

Social media is also now enforcing official party lines on COVID-19 science. Early last week, when arguing that schools should open up this fall, President Donald Trump noted that children are “nearly immune” to COVID-19. This was perhaps imprecise, but directionally valid. Maybe he should have said children are “nearly invulnerable,” which voluminous worldwide evidence tells us is true.

Twitter and Facebook, however, deemed this essentially true statement “misinformation.” Twitter banned the Trump campaign account unless and until it deletes the tweet featuring the video of the statement. The social media companies’ selective application of their codes on “misinformation” and “violent speech” is, at this point, comically duplicitous. 

COVID-19 is particularly fertile ground for these information wars, but it’s happening across the spectrum. Last week, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute posted a video with a comprehensive recitation and sober analysis of crime statistics. YouTube didn’t like it and took it down. Later, YouTube reinstated the video with a warning message, perhaps because Mac Donald was discussing “violence,” as in how to reduce it. Who knows?

Additional note: The Wall Street Journal and others are highlighting a new study that suggests that, contrary to the voluminous evidence, children are in fact effective spreaders. But this study looked only at moderately and severely ill children, of which there are very few. It then said these children produce high viral loads and might, in theory, effectively spread the disease. But it’s an erroneous leap to conclude that because the rare child who does exhibit serious symptoms can spread the virus, all children do spread the virus. It’s an even bigger stretch to assert that, in general, children do so “more efficiently than adults.”

This article by Bret Swanson first appeared in August 2020 on the AEI Ideas Blog.

Image: Reuters