Culture & Society

Disinformation Is the Word I Use When I Want You To Shut Up

Elites are using the threat of “disinformation” to stifle debate and curtail freedom

I’m here to protect you. Image Credit: Michael Zwahlen/EyeEm

While your back was turned, the federal government erected a convoluted apparatus of control for what you can say and see online. They did this, we are told, to protect us. Protect us from what, you ask? Well, mostly from ourselves, but also from a threat that makes nuclear annihilation feel like a pinprick by comparison: disinformation. Also misinformation and malinformation—the latter defined as “bits of actual reality we totally object to.”

But disinformation is the big dog. And by “disinformation,” they mean the web. And by the web, they mean, of course, you—but I already said that.

I have written long, deeply researched tracts about the technical aspects of disinformation. Why did I bother? Nobody cares. Disinformation is just a jargon word with a subliminal meaning, thrown out by the mighty of the earth whenever they worry that they are about to lose an argument—something that happens with painful regularity these days. The word means, “Shut up, peasant.” It’s a bullet aimed at killing the conversation. It’s loaded with hostility to reason, evidence, debate and all the stuff that makes our democracy great.

The Biden White House is on record demanding that social media be held “accountable.” Accountable to whom, you ask—and for what? Well, accountable to them, naturally, for the spreading of disinformation. In 2022, Biden appointed Nina Jankowicz to lead an ambitious new Disinformation Governance Board that aimed to hold all of us accountable.

Who is Nina Jankowicz? She insisted, during the 2020 presidential campaign, that the Hunter Biden laptop story was part of a Russian disinformation campaign, something we now know  was false. She also can be found on TikTok claiming to be the “Mary Poppins of disinformation” and elsewhere online asking, in song, who she needed to have sex with to get ahead in life. That was way too much information, at least for the rubes living in the more obscure parts of the map, so the scheme for a Disinformation Board came to nothing.

In government, if you can’t do it legally, you pay shady people to do it for you. Ordinarily, this is considered criminal behavior. In Washington, it’s called partnering with the private sector. The Biden administration, after writing a few checks, reached out to Nongovernmental Organizations, or NGOs—a shady underworld full of self-proclaimed experts who’ll say pretty much anything for money.

The federal government’s quarrel with disinformation was laundered through outfits like Stanford Internet Observatory, Global Disinformation Index and the Aspen Institute. These places found the situation to be much worse than anyone had thought. More money was obviously needed. Here is Renee DiResta of Stanford Internet Observatory, loudest voice on the subject from the penumbral NGO world, sounding the alarm: “Over the past decade, disinformation, misinformation, and social media hoaxes have evolved from a nuisance into high-stakes information war.”

Who is Renee DiResta? In 2017, she was linked to a bot-driven internet hoax targeting the Republican candidate for Senate in Alabama. But wait: Isn’t that disinformation? Maybe even “high stakes,” since an election was in the balance? Not at all, DiResta informs us—it was a sort of scientific experiment to “investigate” how to “grow audiences … using sensational news.” DiResta, I note, was part of Stanford Observatory’s Election Integrity Partnership. One shudders to think what lack of integrity would bring us.

NGO experts like DiResta stoke the disinformation frenzy that has consumed the news media. Journalists are happy to punish the digital platforms that have destroyed their business, as they go about saving democracy from Nazis, Russians and Republicans. But here’s a strange psychological twist: With the exception of Elon Musk and Twitter, those who own and staff the platforms feel desperate to be seen as part of the team and have shown themselves perfectly willing to get “partnered,” again and again, by various federal agencies.

The Biden White House, the federal bureaucracy, the NGOs, the media and the digital oligarchs can today be found dancing around the same Maypole, all amazingly in sync about the need to control the web. Michael Shellenberger calls this the “censorship-industrial complex” but it’s really more like a protection racket than an industry. There are no smokestacks rising above factories, churning out anti-disinformation tanks and aircraft. Money changes hands, to be sure, but all that gets produced is a torrent of words bristling with dull-witted menace.

By now the exasperated reader may be ready to cry out: Why such a fuss about disinformation, whether for or against? That would be an unwise move. To ask about disinformation is disinformation. And if you deny the power of disinformation, that’s disinformation to the 10th degree. It means that you’re a tool of Vladimir Putin and—to reference the crazy general in Doctor Strangelove—a polluter of our precious bodily fluids.

The people who run our institutions need the word like a double shot of Xanax, just to make it through the night. They believe many impossible things. They believe that men can become pregnant and present-day America is the second coming of Hitler’s Germany. They believe that Biden’s economic policy has been a wild success and that his foreign policy has made us all safer. Disagree if you dare. They have no arguments—they stopped thinking a long time ago. At some level, they probably know that they have drifted into a fantasy world. But there’s nothing more reckless than the hysteria of the powerful, and if you pierce their delusions you will be exposed to the fear and loathing of elite princelings who, with a wave of the hand, can hire and fire, lend and withhold, regulate and prosecute.

In August 2021, a discreet gathering of the disinformation mob took place in Aspen, Colorado, under the auspices of the Aspen Institute’s aptly named “Commission on Information Disorder.” Everyone in the racket attended. Facebook and Google were there, arm in arm with the NGOs. Katie Couric was there. Even Prince Harry was there, for reasons I wouldn’t care to guess at. Renee DiResta turns up in the program as a “technical adviser” to the commission.

The conference’s “Final Report” recommended appointing a federal regulatory commissar, possibly the FTC, to exile the disorderly disseminators of disinformation to digital Siberia. It also cited, approvingly, an opinion survey that showed half of Americans wanted the government to “take steps to restrict false information, even if it means losing some freedom to access and publish content.”

They got that one right. You can eliminate completely the propagation of distasteful opinions—bundled into that loaded word, disinformation—if you are willing to surrender “some freedom.” The Cubans and North Koreans do it every day.

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