coronavirus

­­­The Real Dangers of Misinformation and Disinformation

The real danger of misinformation and disinformation is much less from incorrect information than from the political misuse of these labels by governments and social media organizations to suppress opinions they dislike. “Disinformation” has become so politicized that, as Orwell might have said, it has effectively become just another swear word used in modern information warfare.

The “Twitter Files”

After Elon Musk purchased Twitter he publicly disclosed the Twitter Files through a few selected journalists.  These journalists described Twitter’s secret blacklists and other suppression techniques Twitter used to limit the visibility of certain Twitter accounts.  The Twitter Files also revealed that US government agencies, particularly intelligence agencies like the FBI, and even the White House itself, collaborated with and instructed Twitter’s staff censors to “shadow ban”, i.e., restrict accessibility of, certain accounts because they presented so-called “misinformation ”or “disinformation”.  Similar government collaboration occurred with Facebook and other social media.

The Targets of Government Censorship by Proxy

These targeted restrictions were often applied to posts by reputable scientists like Stanford’s epidemiologist, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya to suppress opinions critical of government policy on, e.g., pandemic lockdowns.  This suppression was carried out by Twitter staff members with no scientific credentials to make informed decisions about what was dangerous versus merely controversial.  Rather, the criterion for suppression was whether the government agencies wanted the suppression.  (Even before the pandemic this suppression was being applied to advocates and critics of various other government policies.) 

Twitter didn’t delete Dr. Bhattacharya’s account but limited its visibility by preventing searches for it and prevented re-tweeting, as those actions might increase viewership: https://unherd.com/thepost/jay-bhattacharya-what-i-discovered-at-twitter-hq/

This was, effectively, government censorship of freedom of expression, carried out on its behalf by privately owned social media.  Secret political censorship of government-critical commentary – which would normally be unconstitutional in a constitutional democracy – was possible only because social media are outside the government and are protected from lawsuits (e.g. for defamation) by extraordinary US legislation.  That amounts to government censorship by proxy. 

There have been US  Congressional hearings investigating how social media deal with what politicians have labelled “misinformation ”or “disinformation”. These investigations have served as clear warnings to social media owners that their legislated protection could be reduced or eliminated if they fail to suppress messages that sufficiently irked the governing party.  

Spreading “misinformation ”or “disinformation” sounds bad, but what do these words really mean?  And how are they being used?  Misinformation usually means spreading false information unintentionally; disinformation is doing so intentionally. But, as we shall see, these labels are so often weaponized to attack people whose messages someone disagrees with, especially by political leaders and government agencies who find the messages politically inconvenient.  

The recently revealed Twitter censorship was considered morally justified by the censors’ good intentions: limiting the spread of dangerous falsehoods that could, hypothetically, result in many deaths by encouraging noncompliance with essential public safety requirements for the pandemic. For reasons explained below, this virtuous sounding justification is not a valid excuse. 

Information or Opinion?

It makes no sense to discuss misinformation without a clear definition of “information”.  Yet I have been unable to find any such definition. For example, the Oxford Dictionary defines information as: facts provided or learned about something or someone. Sounds good so far, but then …

What are facts?  The dictionary defines a fact as: A thing that is known or proved to be true. (Known by whom? Proved by whom, to whose satisfaction?)

What is true?  The dictionary defines it as: Connected with facts rather than things that have been invented or guessed. (Connected how? In whose opinion?)

The circularity of these definitions shows that it is often difficult to determine whether something called information is a fact (i.e., true information) or is believed by someone to have been proved to be true when that belief is mistaken.

However, much of what we read or hear from the mainstream media is not really “information” at all. It is just the expression of a journalist’s opinion or their understanding of something they are not a subject matter expert in.  Similarly, much of what is posted on Twitter and other social media is merely the opinion of the poster. 

Media Marketing Strategy

Social media have taken away so much of the legacy media’s advertising revenue that many traditional media publications have shut down or reduced their newsroom staff.  The survivors have had to change their business models radically.  They now focus on attracting and retaining a particular readership group with opinion articles providing a particular ideological viewpoint that affirms the reader’s sense of group identity.  For example, the New York Times has become a left of centre pro-Democrat publication, while the Wall Street Journal, in the same city, has become a right of centre pro-Republican publication.  The Washington Post has just created a new climate change journalistic group, which is unlikely to tell us, day after day, that climate change has not caused us any problems today. 

The business model of the legacy media in the internet age is preoccupied with maintaining ideological popularity within its chosen readership bubble.  Opinion stories are clearly presented as opinions but so-called news stories are often also just opinions presented as news.  Facts are secondary.  Through a selection of ideologically compatible publications, readers can happily be reinforced in their opinions, staying within their identity bubbles.

It’s not so much fake news you get, but rather, much of what is presented as news is not news at all. It’s not information either.  It’s carefully targeted emotional opinion stories —  emotional bubble wrap, to keep you in your bubble. That what gets people to press the subscribe button and pay for subscriptions; and more subscriptions also brings in more ad revenue.  The test of whether to publish an article is not whether it is informative or true, but whether it is financially beneficial to the publisher.

Often, a journalist’s opinion can’t really be called either misinformation or disinformation, although some of the opinion may cite or rely upon incorrect statements of fact.   All we can say is that we agree or disagree with that opinion, or that the person expressing it is, in our opinion, right or wrong.  But if a politician or government agency disagrees with an opinion, even one expressing an inconvenient truth, they are likely to attack it by calling it misinformation or disinformation, or secretly, to demand that social media suppress it.  (Look no further than the reaction to Michael Moore’s recent documentary, Planet of the Humans, which criticized some climate scientists, environmentalists and renewable energy advocates. It was viciously attacked, as was he personally.)

But what if a Twitter poster’s inconvenient posts don’t contain any information that is false or misleading, they are merely opinions?  Then, if the government attacks the opinion by calling it “disinformation”, it is the government itself that is providing disinformation through its pejorative mislabelling. 

Mask Mandate Disinformation

The excellent UK website UnHerd recently ran an interview providing a good example of just such intentionally misleading government information around mask mandates during, and even after, the Covid pandemic.  You may recall that initially the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that masking wouldn’t work to prevent Covid infections.  Then it changed its mind to make them mandatory in most indoor settings, even for children. 

Even after the pandemic had largely become endemic the New York Times, Atlantic Magazine and the Wall Street Journal carried articles like “It’s time to wear a mask again, health experts say”.  UnHerd interviewed Dr. Leslie Bienen (a healthcare policy researcher) and Dr. Margery Smelkinson (an infectious-disease scientist whose research has focused on influenza and SARS-CoV-2), viewable on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APGVQZdwBQc&t=3s.  Both of these doctors explained in detail that carefully designed randomized controlled studies with large sample sizes, in Denmark and Bangladesh, showed no material benefit to the group that wore masks over the group that didn’t.  On the other hand, the studies used by CDC and other government agencies to justify mask mandates were biased studies conducted for short times.  When the data from these CDC studies was extended past the end of the cherry picked timeframe, the alleged benefit disappeared.  In other words, the CDC’s political objective was to justify mask mandates and the “studies: were designed to pretend to provide “scientific” justification. 

Even as the CDC and other government agencies were accusing critics of their mask mandates as spreading disinformation, it was these agencies that knowingly spread false information to support a political agenda. Whenever we see accusations of misinformation or disinformation we should be as skeptical of the accuser as of the accused.

8 replies »

  1. Thank you, Andrew, for explaining the issues surrounding misinformation and disinformation so clearly. One has to wonder at the consequences of increased use of disinformation over time and across borders. Is disinformation a product of a fractured society or a contributor to an increasingly fractured and politicized society? Who can/should regulate disinformation when its principal creators are governments? How can a country like Canada insulate itself from the disinformation trends in the United States? How can we even hope to have a constructive public debate about the subject, when the ones who practice and benefit from disinformation have so much control over the channels for public debate? I wish I knew the answers. Your article offers an excellent introduction to the debate.

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    • You only need read any newspaper from 50 or 100 years ago to realize that the received wisdom at that time was mostly misinformation from today’s perspective. It has always been so and will continue. Likewise, there are cyclical attempts by government to label misinformation they like as truth (PRAVDA) and other misinformation as lies inimical to the “public safety” (a term used during the French revolution).

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      • The more a society resorts to political control rather than voluntary activity, the more it fractures. We don’t usually care about the “silly beliefs”(misinformation) of religions other than our own. We rebel when “silly beliefs” are the justification for political control.

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  2. Are all of our politicians so shallow as to not see the danger? Tulsi Gabbard is the only one I have noticed. Listen to her eloquence here:

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  3. “if a politician or government agency disagrees with an opinion, even one expressing an inconvenient truth, they are likely to attack it” A recent article in the National Post explains why Jim McMurtry was fired by the Abbotsford B.C School District for saying most children at residential schools died from disease, primarily tuberculosis (as opposed to a student’s assertion that priests had murdered and tortured the children at the school and then left them to die in the snow.) Mr. McMurtry’s information came from The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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    • And even the Post was wrong that tuberculosis spread readily in the crowded living quarters. Dr. Peter Bryce, the revered whistleblower, reported to Duncan Campbell Scott that nearly all children admitted to the schools showed signs of tuberculosis on their pre-admission examinations, which we now regard as having been acquired at home as infants. Tuberculosis was not readily understood at the turn of the 19th century to be contagious in the way that influenza and measles were — it was known that doctors and nurses could work for years with TB patients without ever contracting the disease themselves, for instance (unlike leprosy which they eventually “caught.”) Long story but what Bryce was really trying to do was to get the Department to remodel the schools as sanitaria that were popular in the day in hopes not of preventing spread but in effecting cures of students (and staff) known to be infectious. Dr. Bryce’s previous job was promoting sanitaria to the Ontario government and like many people with high opinion of themselves and whose only tool is a hammer…..

      (There was a whole sanitarian movement that included contraception, temperance, suffragism, restriction on immigration from the Orient, and eugenics. TB was very much a disease of the lower classes — still is –, hence the uglier aspects of the movement that got teased apart later.)

      Scott was skeptical that expensive sanitaria were of any use in curing TB. He told Bryce to get lost and stop bothering him. Others of Bryce’s reforms were adopted, though. It is simply untrue that the government suppressed his report in toto. It was widely discussed in national newspapers — even the books sympathetic to the TRC narrative accept this.

      This is somewhat peripheral to Mr. McMurtry’s outrageous firing. But it touches on something I know something about and I like to set the record straight. It was indeed true that native children died at high rates, mostly TB, and they died at home on their reserves and trap lines, too. For the school board to fire him for reassuring a student that priests didn’t murder these children and toss them into radar anomalies in a Kamloops orchard is truly shameful all by itself.

      I realize that the Indian residential schools are enshrined in national myth as Canada’s slavery. To correct factual errors is like trying to say, “Oh, IRS and slavery weren’t all that bad…” and no newspaper wants to be accused of hate speech.

      Both Hymie Rubenstein and WokeWatchCanada Substacks have been covering this. Disclosure: I give money to both of them.

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