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"We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, almost matter-of-factly, in July. The same week, Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield insisted that social media companies “should be held accountable” for misinformation on their platforms, singling out “conservative news outlets who are creating irresponsible content.” Even President Joe Biden got in on the act, accusing Facebook of “killing people” by allowing misinformation, before walking it back.
While those considered guilty of spreading “misinformation” won’t find themselves under lock and key, the underlying inclination of those in power has a long and sordid history in America.
Protecting people from the scourge of “misinformation” has been the leading rationale for censorship since nearly the beginning of the republic. In the second year of his presidency, John Adams griped that there had been “more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in a hundred years before 1798.” Congress soon helped Adams tackle the purported flood of misinformation by passing the Sedition Act, making the dissemination of “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government” illegal. And, as with most censorship efforts, the law was soon used as a cudgel by those in power. The first person who found himself jailed under the new law was the rambunctious Adams critic Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont.
When President Woodrow Wilson became concerned that antiwar protesters would undermine support for his entrance into World War I, his allies passed another Sedition Act, empowering the postmaster general to censor any letter, pamphlet, or book that conveyed “false reports or false statements.” Wilson enacted censorship policies in conjunction with not only Congress, but with powerful newspaper owners and business interests. Numerous dissenters found themselves in prison, including the prominent socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs. Hardly anyone complained.
These days, every alleged font of misinformation — “white supremacy,” “Russian interference,” partisan debate over the pandemic — is an existential threat against democracy. The establishment Left, by which I mean those in charge of most institutions in society today, continues to normalize the idea that it is moral to suppress ideas to shield citizens, as if they were children, from dangerous speech. Major outlets such as the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and many others run op-eds arguing, citing “experts,” that zealous adherence to First Amendment protections is hopelessly antiquated in a time of mass “disinformation.”
Setting aside First Amendment concerns, the state has no moral claim to dictate the veracity of speech. As we’ve learned during the coronavirus pandemic, health officials have trouble conveying truth. The oscillations, obfuscations, and confusing messaging of the CDC and other health officials have done more to corrode trust in science and government than any conspiracy theorist could ever hope to achieve spreading misinformation on a social media platform. We’re going to have to figure it out ourselves. One of the obvious problems with regulating “misinformation,” through state pressure or otherwise, is that a person would have to accept that most “facts” have already been adjudicated. But that is often not the case. During last year’s pandemic, for example, Facebook was pressured, and acquiesced, to ban posts that theorized that COVID-19 had been man-made and manufactured in China. The “misinformation” was prohibited over fears that such talk would fuel anti-Asian sentiment. Yet, the debate over the origins of the pandemic was not resolved. It is still not resolved. Only when a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report was leaked to newspapers did we learn that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology got sick enough in November 2019 to be hospitalized, and Facebook lifted the ban. For nearly a year, it was impossible for millions of people to discuss a completely reasonable question.
You could argue, in fact, that regarding certain segments of the debate, you were only allowed to read “misinformation” on Facebook. Thus were we subject not to rigorous fact-checking but to the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party, able through U.S. Democrats to crack down on American dissent from the Beijing line.
Sooner or later, every censor in history expands the definition of mis- or disinformation to try to undercut the rights of political opponents. One of the ways they do this is by conflating crackpottery — which, no doubt, exists in abundance — with legitimate speech and debate. The most infamous recent example of such censorship came after the New York Post broke details of President Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s shady overseas dealings with Ukraine and China in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Virtually the entire journalistic establishment defamed the newspaper, asserting that the story was unprofessionally reported, and likely a conduit for Russian “disinformation.” Social media companies buried or banned the sharing of the story, which was never debunked and did not appear to violate any rules the speech police had been enforcing.
Since 2015, Democrats have treated all politically problematic stories as Putin disinformation. In the Hunter Biden case, more than 50 former intelligence officials signed a letter asserting as much — by all accounts wrongly. As it turned out, unlike countless pieces that had been reported by major media outlets regarding COVID, and “Russian collusion,” and Brett Kavanaugh’s history — to name a few news storms — not a single aspect of the Hunter Biden story has been disproved. Liberals had simply exploited hysterical fears over disinformation to try to kill a story, and powerful Democrats were able to strong-arm the private companies that largely control digital speech into censoring inconvenient reporting. As in the China/COVID case, politicians and their allies were importing authoritarian practices under the guise of protecting the public from bad thoughts.
It isn’t surprising that the definition of “misinformation” has been rapidly evolving. NPR recently lamented the ability of popular conservative pundit Ben Shapiro’s site the Daily Wire to garner more Facebook engagement than establishment outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. The piece’s conceit is that the Daily Wire spreads “misinformation” because its writers “tend to not provide very much context for the information” they publish. “Context,” as anyone who’s paid attention to “fact-checkers” over the past few years can tell you, means framing facts within a liberal worldview. “If you’ve stripped enough context away,” Jaime Settle, director of the Social Networks and Political Psychology Lab at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, told NPR, “any piece of truth can become a piece of misinformation.”
What happens when anything conflicting with progressive “truth” can be labeled misinformation? Misinformation becomes “violence,” tantamount to “killing people,” as the president might say. Not long ago, the American Booksellers Association was forced to apologize profusely for including Abigail Shrier’s compelling book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters in a promotional email, preposterously referring to it as a “serious, violent incident.” (Italics mine.) Equating speech with imminent harm — in this case, a book written by an author with degrees from Columbia, Oxford, and Yale Law School laying out potential harm against children — is another way of limiting discourse.
A Canadian man was recently arrested after violating a court order banning him from speaking publicly about his child’s gender transition. Not only doesn’t this father have a right to stop his underage child from abusing puberty-blocking pharmaceuticals, but he’s also punished for using unapproved pronouns. How long before such ideas are normalized here?
To make matters worse, few organizations exist that defend free expression on neutral grounds. The American Civil Liberties Union, once so rigidly principled that it famously defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to march through the Jewish-heavy Chicago suburb of Skokie, now argues that free speech should be curbed so as not to offend “marginalized” groups. “Speech that denigrates such groups can inflict serious harms and is intended to and often will impede progress toward equality,” the ACLU declares in its guidelines governing case selection, “Conflicts Between Competing Values or Priorities.”
Tech companies and media organizations certainly no longer feel any civic responsibility to uphold liberal values or open debate, systemically impinging on the ability of people to engage with each other. More perniciously, the technocracy wields power for political ends. Twitter permanently banned a president and many of his supporters for spreading “disinformation” regarding the results of the 2020 election that sounds curiously similar to the rhetoric Democrats used about the 2016 election. And when millions of Donald Trump fans left Twitter and tried to start another social media platform, Parler, hosting companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon effectively shut that site down as well.
Perhaps we could take Twitter’s claims to upholding the sanctity of truth and decency more seriously if it didn’t host Chinese Communists who rely on slave labor or Iranian officials who use eliminationist rhetoric against the Jews. Are these people any better than numbskulls who believe in chemtrails or that nanotechnological robots are in our vaccines? Let them have their say. That’s the price of living in a free nation. We’re adults. We’ll figure out what we want to believe.
Whenever some right-winger proposes regulating fairness on social media, liberals will earnestly point out that private companies are free to make their own decisions — perhaps the only time the Left takes this idealistic position on property rights. If it really believed in free association, the Left would be utterly outraged by state-pressured speech codes that are in place. Big Tech, which controls a huge swath of our interactions and information flow, does what the state tells it to do. Companies spend millions every year lobbying and rent-seeking. Mark Zuckerberg wants the government to regulate misinformation so he doesn’t have to do it. This not only frees him from negative public attention on “Russian interference” and COVID, but forces his competition to deal with expensive regulatory regimes they may not be able to afford.
It is true that Section 230 gives Big Tech immunity from liability, restraining the kind of litigiousness that generates risk aversion and undermines a free and open internet. But CEOs and cultural elites collude with the government sometimes explicitly, but most often implicitly, to dictate what people can see and talk about, ostensibly to rid us of misinformation, functionally speaking, in the censorship business. And as the Washington Examiner's Katherine Doyle has reported in great detail, the Biden transition team and administration has included former board members, lobbyists, and policy directors from these Silicon Valley firms.
Indeed, there is no evidence that regulations, whether enforced by corporate stooges or government itself, make us safer or alter human nature or stop people from believing stupid things. All the laws regulating speech in Europe haven’t slowed hateful ideologies from gaining traction. And once we normalize the idea that corporations have an extrajudicial duty to stop “misinformation” at the direction of government officials, who work in the administration with former top officials of these tech companies, the spirit of the First Amendment is being corroded.
David Harsanyi is a senior writer at National Review.
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Original Author: David Harsanyi
Original Location: The 'disinformation' deception