There is a new scourge befouling the media landscape, one that our self-appointed mandarins have declared themselves eager to combat: misinformation.
The Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder recently released a report that blamed misinformation for a range of social problems: “Information disorder is a crisis that exacerbates all other crises . . . Information disorder makes any health crisis more deadly. It slows down our response time on climate change. It undermines democracy. It creates a culture in which racist, ethnic, and gender attacks are seen as solutions, not problems. Today, mis- and disinformation have become a force multiplier for exacerbating our worst problems as a society. Hundreds of millions of people pay the price, every single day, for a world disordered by lies.”
With $65 million in backing from investors such as George Soros and Reid Hoffman, the newly organized Project for Good Information also vows to fight fake news wherever it roams. As Recode reported, the group’s marketing materials claim, “Traditional media is failing. Disinformation is flourishing. It’s time for a new kind of media.” The project is run by Democratic operative Tara Hoffman, whose company ACRONYM created the app that spectacularly bungled the Iowa Democratic caucus vote in 2020.
And as Ben Smith reported in The New York Times, the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University has been hosting a series of meetings with major media executives to “help newsroom leaders fight misinformation and media manipulation.” Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has apologized for his platform’s role in spreading misinformation.
The origin of this new wave of portentous declarations and hand-wringing can be found in the Trump years. In an insightful piece in Harper’s, Joseph Bernstein labels this effort Big Disinfo.
It’s “a new field of knowledge production that emerged during the Trump years at the juncture of media, academia, and policy research,” he writes. “A kind of EPA for content, it seeks to expose the spread of various sorts of ‘toxicity’ on social-media platforms, the downstream effects of this spread, and the platforms’ clumsy, dishonest, and half-hearted attempts to halt it.”
As Bernstein argues, “As an environmental cleanup project, it presumes a harm model of content consumption. Just as, say, smoking causes cancer, consuming bad information must cause changes in belief or behavior that are bad, by some standard.”
Big Disinfo has gained in popularity in mainstream media outlets in part because it claims to solve the problem of bad information while placing blame for it on anyone other than mainstream media. In fact, those diagnosing our illness and prescribing the cure are themselves purveyors of the “infodemic” they claim is upon us.
The Aspen Institute’s Commission, for example, includes several people who have actively engaged in misinformation efforts. As the Washington Free Beacon reported, one of the Commission’s advisers, Yoel Roth, was the Twitter executive who blocked his site’s users from sharing the New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop just before the 2020 election.
Adviser Renee DiResta is something of a misinformation wunderkind as well: She was an adviser to American Engagement Technologies, which, the Beacon reports, is a “tech company that created fake online personas to stifle the Republican vote in the 2017 special Senate election in Alabama.”
The commission’s co-chair, Katie Couric, is also familiar with manipulating facts to yield favorable outcomes. She admitted in her recently published memoir that she had removed and edited statements made by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about athletes protesting the playing of the national anthem. Ginsburg’s criticism of the practice might have angered her fellow liberals, Couric feared.
Commissioner Rashad Robinson, head of the activist group Color of Change, also helped spread misinformation by promoting the hate-crime hoax of actor Jussie Smollett even after it was clear Smollett, who last week was convicted on criminal charges related to the staging of the attack, was lying. And then there is commission member Prince Harry, an expat British ex-royal with few qualifications but a lifetime of evidence of his own questionable judgment (such as dressing up as a Nazi and, more recently, whining to Oprah about the family that funds his lavish lifestyle).
Earlier this year, Harry declared the First Amendment “bonkers.”
Lies trump honesty
The Aspen Commission’s report says that there is no such thing as an “arbiter of truth,” and yet our media gatekeepers have claimed that mantle for themselves — with decidedly mixed results — for some time.
Consider the fact that Russiagate, a yearslong effort to prove that Donald Trump was being blackmailed and controlled, proved untrue yet was given constant media attention, while the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop and its contents, which proved true, was actively suppressed with the explicit purpose of protecting Joe Biden’s chances of becoming president. We live in a surreal information moment when the lie was given ample airtime and featured prominently in print, while the truth was smothered and labeled disinformation.
And yet our self-appointed misinformation warriors have proven unwilling to engage in self-reflection. Harvard’s Shorenstein Center used the New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden’s laptop computer as the basis for one of its case studies during its recent misinformation sessions.
The lesson that the center’s leaders drew, however, was not the one anyone who values the truth should follow. According to the Times, the Shorenstein Center claimed that the Hunter Biden story offered “an instructive case study on the power of social media and news organizations to mitigate media manipulation campaigns.” In other words, the suppression of information deemed by “experts” to be misinformation was precisely the kind of Good Information objective we should be pursuing. The research director of the center, Joan Donovan, told the Times that the Hunter Biden case study was “designed to cause conversation — it’s not supposed to leave you resolved as a reader.”
But what is there to resolve about the fact that the Fourth Estate eagerly embraced the role of Chief Information Censor on behalf of a Democratic candidate for president?
Misinformation and disinformation are nothing new. Propaganda, political dirty tricks, and deliberate lies have been with us a while — and have often been a point of pride for their practitioners. It was not that long ago that Ben Rhodes, then a top aide to President Barack Obama, boasted about creating an “echo chamber” in the media to spread falsehoods about the details of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal.
It is true that misinformation has taken on greater significance thanks to the scale and speed of the social-media platforms that spread it. But the new sanctimony about misinformation should be leavened with some healthy skepticism about the movement’s major actors.
As Bernstein noted, in some sense “the disinformation project is simply an unofficial partnership between Big Tech, corporate media, elite universities, and cash-rich foundations.” The crusade against misinformation is an approximate mirror image of Donald Trump’s war against “fake news.”
Control of information is control of one of the most valuable commodities in the developed world: people’s attention. And people want their confirmation biases affirmed. But scholars and commissioners studying misinformation also suffer from confirmation bias. Contra the proposals made by panels and commissions on misinformation, the most radical thing we could do right now isn’t to give more power to elites or the federal government to control information.
Their record of late — Russiagate, Hunter Biden, the Covington kids, the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis, Border Patrol officers with whips, the Kyle Rittenhouse trial — has not been stellar. It would be far better for the health of the “information ecosystem” that these supposed experts are always invoking if reporters focused on shoring up what were once unassailable tenets of journalism — balance, iron-clad sourcing, and critical independence from and skepticism about the powerful. Instead, they are power’s handmaidens.