On Monday, The Intercept reported on a trove of leaked documents that reveal the extent of collaboration between the US government and Silicon Valley in the attempt to police so-called disinformation. Although the Department of Homeland Security scrapped its controversial plan for a Disinformation Governance Board this year, the Intercept report shows that DHS and affiliated agencies have continued to enlist social-media platforms in flagging and censoring posts that conflict with official narratives—and the platforms have largely obliged.

These revelations should dampen expectations around Twitter’s takeover by self-described “free-speech absolutist” Elon Musk, which has been celebrated by opponents of social-media censorship and lamented by those who believe restrictions on online expression are the only thing protecting us from a fascist coup propelled by fake news.

Both sides likely overestimate the difference Musk’s leadership will make. Speech regulation online isn’t merely a matter of private company policy. Rather, it is the product of behind-the-scenes coordination between Big Tech companies, governments, and intergovernmental organizations. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the years-long, draconian speech crackdowns and aggressive propaganda campaigns deployed in response to Covid, which have been the subject of several recent lawsuits.

Covid wasn’t the first pandemic to sweep across the world, but it was the first in modern times to facilitate an unprecedented curtailing of basic freedoms. Neither the 1957-58 influenza pandemic nor the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu nor, more recently, the 2002-4 SARS outbreak and the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic had a remotely comparable social or political fallout. Indeed, in all those cases, “life either wasn’t interrupted or returned to normal quickly,” as Peter Doshi and David Robertson have noted. That’s not because those viruses weren’t deemed to be dangerous—indeed, initial projections for the number of life-years that might be lost from swine flu were far worse than those for Covid.

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