There have been few things as utterly noxious and degrading to the intellectual culture of American liberalism in the last half a decade as its increasingly obsessive fascination with the categories of
disinformation as models for political dispute and as explicit terms of analysis and criticism.
Humans get stuff wrong. We do it all the time. We’re biased and blind and overconfident.
All of this makes the very concept of misinformation–and its more sinister cousin, disinformation–slippery at best. Spend 10 minutes listening to any think tank panel or cable news segment about the scourge, and it will quickly become clear that many people simply use the terms to meaninformation, whether true or false, that I would rather people not possess or share.This is not a good working definition, and certainly not one on which any kind of state action should be based.
The battle over the appropriate response to disinformation boiled over in late April, when the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of a Disinformation Governance Board. There appears to have been astonishingly little thought put into how the public might receive such a declaration, including the board’s rather Orwellian moniker and its equally evocative acronym: DGB.
Several panicked clarifications by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas later, the board appears to be a relatively small-scale operation focused on an odd assortment of topics, including disinformation originating from Russia that might impact the next U.S. election and the dissemination of false information about U.S. immigration policies by border smugglers. This understanding of disinformation as false information purposely incepted for sinister ends by foreign agents is likely the least controversial formulation of the concept.
Still, as an open letter from Protect Democracy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute succinctly put it:Disinformation causes real harms, but the Constitution limits the government’s role in combating disinformation directly, and the government can play no useful role at all in the absence of public trust. The announcement of this Board, housed in a Department with a checkered record on civil liberties and without clarity and specificity on its mandate, has squandered that trust.
But there’s a reason the announcement of the Disinformation Governance Board was greeted with such a clamor: The public is increasingly skeptical that officials will honor the limits of constitutional protections for speech, and increasingly aware that the status quo has moved toward censorship by proxy.
At the height of COVID-19, President Joe Biden and his administration repeatedly made what it calledasksof social media and search companies to remove content it deemed disinformation. Again, after having been accused of actual murder by the president of the United States, it seems likely those firms greeted thoseasksas something more akin todemands.
The notion that a government-codified understanding of thebest available evidenceshould be the standard for identifying misinformation demonstrates a spectacular misunderstanding of both free speech and the process of scientific inquiry–and a troubling lack of humility.
— Katherine Mangu-Ward, You’re Wrong About Disinformation
Reason (July 2022).