Felix Larkin asks:

To what extent, if at all, is there a morally acceptable argument for government or others in authority to withhold information or make misleading or false statements, about the pandemic to avoid panic in the population at large?

Phillip Cummings asks the same question in more detail:

To what extent, if at all, should public figures conceal the full truth about aspects of the pandemic in order to achieve desired behaviour from the public? I think this question is particularly relevant in relation to the easing of lockdown conditions. For example, even talking about future easing of restrictions on public movement carries the risk of some people easing them off their own bat once the topic has been mentioned. So then, to be safe rather than sorry, would it be acceptable for a public figure to conceal the fact that the most dangerous period in terms of infection has passed in order to keep people indoors to prevent the danger of a second wave of infection?

Elmar Unnsteinsson answers by pointing out that there is a very limited scope for governments to withhold information from us or to deceive us. This could be justifiable when there is information that would cause harms if it were released and which there isn't a compelling public interest in, for example, revealing which people were the first in Ireland to be infected. He also discusses why not even these cases are clear-cut.

Let’s start by simplifying the issue considerably. Suppose I’m hiding an innocent friend in my home and her abuser comes knocking on the door. He intends to hurt my friend, and I know this. Most people would agree that, in this situation, I am morally justified in protecting my
friend by deceiving her abuser.

I can withhold information by not answering the door. But, even if I open the door, I can intentionally mislead the perpetrator by saying something true which still implies falsely that my friend is not there. I could say, for example, that she’s usually at the market at this time of day. Finally, I can simply lie by saying that my friend is not in the house. Why exactly does it seem, in each case, like I am morally justified in deceiving the perpetrator?

One plausible answer is that I am justified to act to prevent foreseeable harm. And harm is intuitively understood as when someone’s morally legitimate desires are arbitrarily frustrated by someone else. Desires are morally legitimate when acting on them would not cause damage to other or does not violate some ethical principle. So, my friend has a legitimate desire not to be hurt and the perpetrator has no legitimate desire, we can presume, to hurt my friend.

Now, some philosophers have argued that everyone has a legitimate desire not to be deceived or lied to. And there seems to be something right about that which I’ll get to later. Anyway, at least in this example, the perpetrator’s desires seem defeated by my friend’s stronger claim to protection from arbitrary violence. So, the perpetrator’s desires are in fact not legitimate.

Let’s apply this to public statements by governments in the context of a crisis. Avoiding large-scale panic is clearly a legitimate goal for public officials. But are they really justified in deceiving the public to avoid panic? Well, yes, at least if there is information which the public has no legitimate desire or right to receive, and if releasing it is predicted to provoke outbursts of violent panic.

Take for example the identity of the first person to enter Ireland with a confirmed infection. This information is accessible to public officials and some members of the public might ask for it, perhaps with violent intent. Of course, you might say that since the public doesn’t have a right to know, this is not really an issue. And because we have legal protections of privacy it may seem like this possibility is not even worth mentioning. But we haven’t had those protections forever and they are there precisely because we think our governments ought sometimes to withhold information from us.

Now, withholding information does not amount to misdirection or lying. But suppose that the home of the first infected person is being guarded by police and a member of the public asks the presiding officer whether that’s the home of the first Covid-19 case. Misdirection or lying seem justified.

It’s time to strip away some of our simplifying assumptions. First, the example just given involves someone’s right to privacy, but the original question is about avoiding panic. But panic in the population at large can mean many things; possibly violence and destruction of property. So, citizens do have a right to be protected from the foreseeable consequences of nation-wide panic. Thus, it seems that if deception can be justified to protect privacy it can also be justified to protect people from utter chaos.

Second, I have focused on cases where a single person is deceived and we know that they have bad intentions. Public statements are directed at millions of people at once, and individual reactions can vary wildly. Some may panic and hoard drugs, which is bad for those who rely on those drugs, while others may react with violence against people they believe are from China. Both are predictable panic reactions based on a simple announcement that we are dealing with a dangerous disease that originated in Wuhán.

Third, in countries with representative democracy, the person deceiving us will be someone who we, as a people, elected to carry out the functions of government. Some would argue that, if the deceiver is well informed and has the interest of the people at heart, they are merely doing what we asked them to do. Fourth, real-world politics is full of uncertainty, which complicates matters. We might know that releasing some information would probably induce panic, while only having a low degree of confidence that the information is reliable. Confidence must be high when some of the predicted consequences of the announcement are quite distressing.

Taking this together, government officials can justifiably conceal the truth if they are confident that its immediated release would have seriously detrimental effects. Another example would be to refrain from expressing too much optimism about lifting restrictions,
even when optimism is warranted, because some members of the public might interpret this as a license to be less careful.

I will conclude with what I see as the most pressing objection to this whole argument. It goes like this. Information and knowledge are absolutely necessary for making good decisions and, also, to government accountability:

First, if we don’t know the nature of the threat our individual response is less likely to work.

It is good, however, to know why we should wash our hands rather than merely knowing that we should do so. So, limited information can sometimes rob us of the ability to make good decisions.

Second, we cannot hold the government to account for its deeds or misdeeds when we have been fed misinformation.

This is the greatest danger of fake news and dishonesty in politics, and the reason why it is increasingly acknowledged that the media ought to be free to seek the release of information which may be sensitive or classified. Protections for whistleblowers are immensely important because we need politicians to know that they could always be exposed as liars in the end, if not immediately. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way, because some politicians seem to be able to lie openly without facing any consequences, not even at the ballot box.

Elmar Geir Unnsteinsson

Elmar Geir Unnsteinsson

Lecturer (Ad Astra Fellow) in Philosophy